WA fire experts worried about wildfires with warm temps, Memorial Day

May 28, 2021, 4:44 PM
wildfires, wildfire...
Destruction caused by the Graham fire. Six homes were destroyed, residents in the area have been evacuated. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)
(Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

Between the unusually warm, dry temperatures coming and the campfires and fire pits that people may use to celebrate Memorial Day, this weekend could be a hot time for wildfires.

With the two bouts of warm weather we’ve already had this spring, the state has seen hundreds of fires — and we’re still nearly a month out from the official start of summer.

That’s why Robert Wittenberg, deputy state fire marshal, is expecting another bad fire season in the coming months.

“Our typical wildfire season does usually start in mid-June, but we did already have a number of events that occurred in March that required state resources to mobilize, so we are anticipating that this could be a season that could be just as challenging as last year,” he said.

Warm holiday weekend perfect for beach bonfires, boating

And if you think that your Memorial Day weekend bonfire couldn’t possibly lead to any wildfires, think again. While many people may think that lightning storms usually cause wildfires, it turns out that humans tend to have a lot more to do with it.

“There were about 1,500 wildfires reported in Washington state [last year], and about 95% of those were started due to human factors,” Wittenberg said, adding that those causes included things like “burn piles that got out of control, campfires that were neglected or not fully extinguished, and smoking.”

Even yardwork can contribute to wildfires if not done correctly.

Wittenberg advised that any campfires should be 10 feet away from flammable material and should be supervised constantly. It’s a good idea to keep a hose nearby just in case things get out of hand.

If you’re taking a boat out to a lake this Memorial Day Weekend, make sure to keep your tow chains up off the ground — the chains rubbing along pavement can create sparks.

For those who are spending the long weekend at home catching up on yardwork, it’s a good time to check that machinery like lawnmowers and power saws are in good condition so they don’t make sparks. Those types of power tools should be used away from tall, dry grass.

Always check to make sure burning is allowed if you plan to burn debris, and never burn plastic, tires, or paint cans. As with campfires, keep an eye on any burn piles and a hose handy at all times.

The long weekend may also be a good time to clear debris out from your yard, garden, and around your house. Wittenberg noted that piles of pine needles, branches, and old leaves may seem innocuous, but they can act as tinder for a wildfire.

“You want to make sure that any debris around your house, particularly on your roof and in your gutters, is cleared away — any debris that can kind of accumulate underneath a deck or around a porch or in the corners of your home,” he said.

He also advised keeping your grass frequently watered and trimmed to just a couple of inches.

These are basic maintenance actions that Graham Fire and Rescue Assistant Chief Steve Richards witnessed save a house last summer in Graham’s Labor Day wildfire. He observed that in a row of houses that had burned, the one house left standing had done a remarkable job of mitigating any sources of tinder.

“How that house was prepared for wildfire was very good lessons learned for some of the neighbors — keeping their trees trimmed up, the grass cut low around their house,” Richards said. “They even had a lot of rock gardens around their house with a composition roof that really helped that house survive.”

After that wildfire destroyed several homes, Graham firefighters themselves are taking steps to prepare for the coming summer in case the worst happens again.

Because the hot, dry temperatures and strong winds that caused last summer’s fire to spread so rapidly are typically only found in Eastern Washington, Richards said that the fire department was quite surprised. To make matters worse, other fires nearby, such as the Sumner Fire, caused a strain on resources and people in the entire region. After the Graham Fire, however, the Graham team regrouped and came up with a plan to make improvements.

“We know we’re going to be drier this year, that’s what the forecast is coming out [with], and we’re expecting to have maybe additional fires, so what we’ve done is just enhanced our training and prepping our crews to be ready out there,” Richards described.

This included buying new equipment, such as another water tender and more firehoses.

“We just didn’t have water fast enough when we needed it,” Richards said.

Richards said they also improved their training to look at different tactics, such as how to get to hard-to-reach spots like the off-road areas where the fire occurred last year. Graham also plans to add more firefighters when the area hits red flag warnings.

A big part of this effort also is educating the public about how they can make their homes and yards less of a fire-spreader, especially when they live near woods and brush.

“We are starting to do some PSAs, if you will, to get out there, to kind of put some more awareness out there — what people can do when they live in those areas,” Richards said.

After record number of April fires, Washington could face challenging fire season

For more tips on how you can prevent your property from fueling a wildfire, visit the Washington State Fire Marshal’s website.

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WA fire experts worried about wildfires with warm temps, Memorial Day