Could ‘Great Seattle Fire’ happen again with current warm streak?

Jun 5, 2023, 2:02 PM | Updated: Aug 14, 2023, 2:16 pm

Great Seattle Fire...

On the day of the Great Seattle Fire, an inadvertently spilled glue pot in a carpentry shop started the historic Seattle fire. (File Photo)

(File Photo)

Tuesday, June 6 marks the anniversary of the tragic 1889 Great Seattle Fire that burned 25 blocks of downtown waterfront Seattle, but could it happen again?

Unlike last year’s cool wet spring, this spring has been considerably warmer and drier than average. In May, western Washington’s average temperatures for the entire month were four degrees above normal, specifically in mid-May when Sea-Tac Airport hit 89 degrees and Olympia reached 92. Even along the coast, it was unseasonably hot with 91 degrees at Hoquiam and 92 degrees at Forks.

Brush fires in Bellevue, Orondo start Washington wildfire season

May was also exceptionally dry, with much of western Washington receiving under an inch of rain for the entire month. Sea-Tac Airport had a total of 0.93 inches of rain – 49% of the average. Other Washington locations were even drier. Bellingham received only 34% of its average May rainfall, Olympia just 26% of average, and the coast was eye-popping with only 17% of average at Hoquiam. Forks received just 11% of its rain total.

The warm, dry weather has continued into June with no significant rainfall in sight. Temperatures will climb back into the 80s for a few days in the middle of this week. Those unseasonably warm temperatures will be combined with blustery winds and a very dry air mass, leading to a rising wildfire threat.

Thanks to April — the only wet month so far this year — the sunny weather has helped plants and trees green up and grow. Yet now, light fuels like grasses are drying out, setting up the possibility for grass fires. During this period of warm, dry, and windy weather, it is important to keep burning materials inside vehicles and tighten up tow chains to avoid sparks from starting roadside fires.

Monday’s current warm, dry weather brings us back to what happened on the Seattle waterfront on June 6, 1889. There were no precise weather records back then, but that spring was a warm and dry one.

On the day of the Great Seattle Fire, an inadvertently spilled glue pot in a carpentry shop started the historic Seattle fire. Stiff winds coming off Elliott Bay that warm afternoon helped fan the flames and spread the fire from one building to the next with ease. You can visit what’s left through the Seattle Underground Tour.

So far this century, there have been a greater number of warm and dry springs and summers. Such dry conditions can elevate the threat of fast-spreading fires, particularly in neighborhoods where homes are quite close to each other. Fortunately, newer structures have more fire-resistant building materials, and a state-of-the-art fire response community can help stop such rapidly spreading fires.

Yet these kinds of fires can still happen thanks to warm, dry, and breezy weather conditions. This spring alone, consider the wildfires in the interior of western Canada or even in Nova Scotia, a place where it is hard to fathom such a fire could burn neighborhoods.

More from Ted Buehner: How hot, dry will it get? A preview of the Seattle summer weather

Looking ahead, the latest seasonal weather outlook for western Washington all the way into September shows odds are tipped toward warmer and drier-than-average conditions during the warmest and driest time of the year.

Everyone can and should prepare in advance by building wildfire-defensible spaces around homes and businesses. Consider this effort a part of spring yard cleaning.

Visit the National Fire Protection Association website for all the tips, such as moving firewood away from your home, trimming tree limbs up off the ground to above your head, and cleaning roofs and gutters of debris. Help Smokey Bear and his motto – Only You Can Prevent Wildfires – whether in urban or rural areas.

Follow Ted Buehner, the KIRO FM news meteorologist on Twitter

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Could ‘Great Seattle Fire’ happen again with current warm streak?