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Gov. Inslee: Recent fires in Washington are ‘not natural,’ ‘not an act of God’

Burnt hillsides from the Cold Springs Fire can be seen off State route 155 near Haley Creek on September 10, 2020 in Omak, Washington. Dozens of wildfires are raging throughout West as record high temperatures and dry vegetation fuel the fast-moving, destructive blazes, destroying hundreds of acres. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

As of Friday morning, Gov. Inslee said there are 14 active, large fires burning in the state of Washington that have burned a total of 626,982 acres since Monday.

“This has been a cataclysmic event in the state of Washington,” Inslee said. “We have so many families who have had such profound losses.”

The fires have been extraordinary, he added, due to the low humidity, high temperatures, and strong winds that allow it to spread rapidly. The fires suffered in the last five days are the most fires in any total year in Washington, except 2015, Inslee said.

Speaking Thursday, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz warned that the state remains “tragically short” on resources to battle wildfire.

“Too often, these situations aren’t taken seriously until it’s too late — until an entire town burns to the ground,” she said.

For the Sumner Grade Fire, Bonney Lake residents were informed Thursday that some of the evacuation orders were being lifted, and that a “phased re-entry” would be instituted.

Road closures at SR 410 and Meyers Road are still in effect, and not all residents are currently allowed back in their homes. Anyone in the green or yellow areas outlined by the Bonney Lake Police Department below can now return:

Residents in the yellow area are under a Level 2 order, and as such, should be prepared to leave should another evacuation prove necessary.

East Pierce Fire noted that conditions had not worsened as of Thursday night, and that the fire remains roughly 20% contained with roughly 800 acres burned. That being so, it also cautioned that the fire is not out, and that “there is still much work to do.”

The Cold Springs Fire in Okanogan County continues as well, but is now 25% contained, having burned over 187,000 acres. A 1-year-old boy from Renton died as his family was trying to escape that fire Wednesday. His parents were last reported in critical condition at a Seattle hospital.

To aid in the state’s ongoing efforts to battle ongoing fires, Gov. Inslee issued a proclamation Thursday to help families and individuals impacted by wildfires with cash assistance and immediate needs. The assistance will be provided through DSHS’ Family Emergency Assistance Program, which has been expanded to also serve individuals, and the one-time distribution limitation has been waived.

“For families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the devastating wildfires ravaging our state, funding from the Family Emergency Assistance Program can be, quite literally, a lifesaver,” Inslee said. “The state will continue to look for ways to support communities as we work together to recover from multiple economic and health emergencies.”

Gov. Inslee also said the state will be assessing the damages and applying for federal assistance, if eligible, which depends on the amount of loss suffered. He pledged that the state will be aggressive in getting aid for the communities impacted by these fires. Any federal help can also go to municipalities.

As far as the cause of these fires and what people can do to limit the risk, Inslee outlined “three buckets.” One, all residents can be fire-wise to help save their homes. Often, Inslee added, you see three houses in a row burn and then one survive. The surviving home is typically clear of shrubbery, pine needles, and any other combustible materials.

Second, Inslee said combustion can be reduced by managing forests and removing dense materials. The state is doing that already, he added, spending millions of dollars, but it remains a huge challenge as there are hundreds of thousands of acres and it’s only possible to thin a small percent per year.

Lastly, the fundamental issue, Inslee said, is that Washington is a “tinderbox” due to low humidity, high temperatures, and winds. These conditions are becoming more frequent, the governor added, because the climate is changing.

“These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires,” Inslee said. “And we cannot, and we will not surrender our state and expose people to have their homes burn down and lives lost because of climate fires.”

Impacts from a changing climate are not 20 or 30 years away, Inslee said. Already, too many towns have burnt down, the governor says, and he looks forward to the state being unified to “fight this scourge.”

“This is not natural. This is not an act of God,” Inslee said. “… This has happened because we have changed the climate in the state of Washington in dramatic ways.”

For updates regarding ongoing fires across the state, you can monitor them on a live map produced by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources here. You can also monitor air quality from smoke in your area here.

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