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Washington wildfires: Set for worse ever, or blown out of proportion?

A wildfire buring near Omak, Washington in August 2015. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Depending on who you’re talking to, Washington state is either poised for the worst summer of wildfires it’s ever seen… or a completely normal summer.

Are you prepared for the coming smoky days in Washington?

Everyone ranging from King County Public Health to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has been talking about the possibility of a wildfire season more destructive and dangerous than any we’ve ever seen.

“Unfortunately, we are likely to see even more significant fires and more significant smoke this year,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz told the Candy, Mike and Todd Show in May. “Last year, we had 1,850 fires total. The most our state has ever had on record — 40 percent of those fires west of the Cascades. The season really got started in early May and went well through October.”

The primary voice countering those claims has been UW climate scientist Cliff Mass.

Mass has been arguing for months now that concerns over wildfires this year have largely been blown out of proportion.

“At this point, there is no reason to expect more wildfires than normal or a particularly smoky season in western WA,” Mass said in a blog post on Sunday.

While allowing that “some smoke over the region is nearly inevitable,” he’s consistently stated that concerns over 2019’s upcoming bout of fires are “deceptive.”

“There is a lot of fear-inducing headlines in the media and among some politicians about a terrible fire season because of the recent dry period and the low snowpack at some sites in northern Washington. These worries are not realistic,” Mass said back in May.

Mass finds ‘technical flaws’ in ‘unreasonable’ heat study

Meanwhile, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan remained insistent that smoky days are on the horizon.

“We have to prepare as if this will be the new normal,” she said last Wednesday.

That said, Mass noted that as of Sunday, there are “no major fires in the Northwest right now, and air quality is good throughout the region.” Additionally, he pointed out, “there are fewer fires than normal burning at this time.”

He did still advise that people prepare for at some decrease in air quality, as “some summer smoke should be expected each year.”

A recent increase in the state’s wildfire budget makes it so officials and responders can be prepared regardless of how bad this season’s wildfires ultimately get.

The state Legislature recently approved a record $50 million in its recent budget to combat wildfires. The state money will help make 30 seasonal firefighters, full time. And it will add 2 more helicopters that dump water on fires. The state currently has seven choppers.

Congress and President Donald Trump also approved $2 billion for the state to fight fires over the next eight years. That federal money is available starting this season.

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