Wildfire season in full swing in Washington after mild start

Aug 5, 2022, 6:05 PM

(KIRO 7)...

(KIRO 7)

(KIRO 7)

Thanks to the cool, wet spring and early summer, the wildfire season may have been mild up until now … but all of that changed this week.

With the Vantage Highway Fire, the Cow Canyon Fire north of Naches, the Williams Lake Fire south of Cheney, the Riparia Fire near the Snake River in Whitman County, and the Lind Fire – which destroyed six homes and eight other buildings on Thursday — all breaking out this week, fire season appears to be underway in Washington. No people have been hurt in the fires at this point.

“We’ve been blessed to have a light fire season, but we need to be very aware that our fire season is now upon us,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz at a briefing on Friday. “And with the hotter, drier conditions and windy conditions, fires can erupt very quickly … It is going to likely get worse before it gets better.”

Three wildfires across Eastern Washington burn 22,000 acres

While all of the rain in May and June did delay the fire season, it also helped plants to grow — and those plants are now acting as tinder for the fires.

“That moisture, those grey skies, those cooler temperatures really helped. But what we do know is that all that moisture allowed all of those grasses to grow,” Franz said. “And now they will quickly dry out with the hot temperatures.”

Combined with the hot, dry air, strong winds in Central and Eastern Washington have also encouraged dramatic fire growth.

“Those windy conditions have led to extreme fire behavior, making suppression very challenging as the fires shift direction rapidly and unpredictably,” Franz said.

The good news is, going into the weekend, officials at the Department of Natural Resources believe winds will die down east of the Cascades. However, they are worried about the potential thunderstorms on the horizon for Eastern Washington next week, as those storms could bring lightning strikes and more wind gusts.

“The hopes right now are that the thunderstorms that do develop will produce precipitation across the east side of the state and in the high Cascades,” said Matt Dehr, a wildland fire meteorologist with DNR.

Franz said we cannot let our guard down just because wildfire season has been light up until now. She pointed to the 2020 season, which also seemed relatively tame at first due to a cooler start to summer. Then over Labor Day Weekend, dozens of fires started across the state, conflagrating more than 500 square miles. A toddler died in a wildfire in Okanogan County, and nearly the entire town of Malden in Whitman County burned to the ground.

“We cannot forget 2020. While we had a light season in the spring and early summer of 2020, we all tragically remember the Labor Day firestorm, where just in 72 hours, we lost a significant amount of structures and a little boy’s life,” Franz said.

Franz begged Washington residents to take precautions so that 2022 does not resemble 2020. Homeowners should always follow burn ban laws and keep a hose nearby whenever doing any recreational burning. When camping, remember to always fully put out your campfire. Never drive, park, or use power tools over dry grass. When hauling a boat or trailer, keep chains off of the road.

“Be part of making sure that this year is our safest, most-reduced fire season ever,” Franz encouraged residents.

In the meantime, the state says it has plenty of people to fight the fires — and even some to spare to help out other states in need.

“We are currently fully-staffed … we’ve actually been sharing our resources across jurisdictions, helping in other states’ fires,” Franz said.

Since last year’s fire season, the vaccine mandate for state workers went into effect. But Russ Lane, assistant manager of DNR’s Wildfire Division, said the mandate has not created a gap in firefighters. In fact, at nearly 700 firefighters, the state has about 3% more firefighters than it did in 2021.

“DNR is actually up slightly in numbers … we actually have a handful more firefighters on the ground than we did compared to last year, which is a really nice place to be,” Lane said.

Franz noted that the vaccine mandate is waived for contracted firefighters from other states “in order to mirror the federal government.”

If things get worse this year, Washington could bring in firefighters from Canada and the National Guard, but so far, wildfire season has not been that dire.

In all, what makes the biggest difference, Franz said, is that firefighters are not as tired this year as last year. At this point in the year, the state has had about 300 fires — last year, we had more than 200 just in April, and ended wildfire season with nearly 1,900 fires.

“We’re sitting in a very good place, given that our resources have not been stretched thin, our firefighters are not exhausted and drained like they were last year,” Franz said. “They’re ready to get on these fires quickly, and they’re showing it,”

You can see a map of active wildfires on DNR’s website.

Follow Nicole Jennings on Twitter or email her here

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Wildfire season in full swing in Washington after mild start