Sen. Cantwell: WA will be ‘epicenter of severe wildfires’ in summer

Jun 26, 2023, 11:00 AM | Updated: 1:13 pm

summer wildfires...

People take photos against the backdrop of the Space Needle as smoke from wildfires fills the air at Kerry Park on September 12, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)

Senator Maria Cantwell said that Washington “will be the epicenter of severe regional wildfires from July to September” and believes we need to be prepared. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) forecasted “above normal” wildfire risk this summer.

Despite fire seasons becoming more intense and consistent in the summer and fall months, especially on the West Coast, this risk hasn’t typically been seen statewide before, particularly in historically wetter western Washington.

But Cantwell is concerned that may change.

“We need to be ready, and I will work with state and federal agencies to ensure we are keeping Washingtonians safe this wildfire season,” Cantwell said. “This is why I will be questioning leaders from the Forest Service and the Department of Interior about how the federal government will support the State of Washington as we prepare for what could be the most dangerous wildfire season in years.”

King County issues Stage 1 Burn Ban with wildfire season approaching

Rangeland areas in Washington, Oregon, southwest Idaho, northwest Nevada, and parts of the Great Lakes are expected to have above-normal wildfire potential in June and July, with parts of the Great Lakes experiencing above-normal potential into August, according to the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook. Additionally, the Upper Yukon area of Alaska was influenced by the same heat wave that affected northwest Canada and remains at risk of above-normal large wildfires in June and July.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources met on Thursday to discuss the federal government’s actions to address the escalating annual wildfire season. Data obtained by the Government Accountability Office, reveals that smoke from wildfires makes up for 30% of the U.S.’ emissions of particulates. More than half of the most destructive wildfires in the history of the United States have occurred since 2018.

“The ‘fire season’ has become extended in many parts of the country, and what was once limited to certain months of the year now encompasses an entire ‘fire year,'” said Senator Joe Manchin, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, during the committee meeting. “While each ‘fire year’ is different due to varied weather and fuel moisture factors, currently, the outlook for 2023 points to less fire activity from April through July compared to the above normal activity encountered over the same months last year. Managing a year-long season is increasingly challenging to Interior and the entire wildland fire management community.”

The acres burned in wildfires annually have doubled in the past 30 years and are forecast to double again in the next 30 years.

“Over the last two years, Congress has provided record levels of funding – over $10 billion – to help the federal agencies achieve a paradigm shift in the way they manage the wildland firefighting workforce and our public lands,” Manchin continued. “We must get to work at changing the status quo. Not only is the safety of our communities and health of our forests and the safety of our communities at stake, but also the lives of the men and women who serve in our fire service.”

Brush fires in Bellevue, Orondo see start of Washington wildfires

Nearly 100 acres have already burned in Washington this year, according to Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, and that number could climb.

Earlier this week, approximately 35 firefighters were needed to extinguish a two-acre brush fire that forced multiple evacuations in Vancouver, Wash. The fire rose to about 10 feet in height. Fire crews even asked for help from the Department of Natural Resources for a helicopter to drop water, according to KOIN, but that helicopter had to change course to fight a separate brush fire in Vancouver.

“I’ve been here for 24 years. It’s June 5 today. It’s very early in this in the summer,” Darin, a Vancouver resident, told KOIN. “And to have multiple big fires like we’ve had today is a telltale sign that’s going to be a long season for the firefighters.”

The Senate meeting took place while Washington D.C. was backdropped by thick layers of smoke from hundreds of fires raging across Eastern Canada, creating dangerous levels of air quality and pollution across the eastern U.S. Washington, D.C. was elevated to purple level — dangerous for all — air quality on the day of the Senate Committee meeting. Sporting events in New York were canceled, Pride events in Washington, D.C. have been postponed, and swaths of students had to return to remote learning.

The Department of the Interior received $1.5 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) over the next five years for wildland fire management programs. BIL is the largest federal investment in public transportation in the nation’s history, issuing up to $108 billion for public transportation and other infrastructure-related projects.

“As you will see in our testimony, the Interior’s bureaus — Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey — are using BIL funding collaboratively with our partners to increase the pace and scale of fuels management treatments, rehabilitate lands damaged by wildfires, and fund research into priority wildland fire management issues, including the impacts of climate change on wildfire, fuels management, and firefighter mental health,” Jeffrey Rupert, the director of the Office of Wildland Fire, said in the committee meeting. “Through BIL, we are also increasing workforce capacity and wildland firefighter pay and supporting wildland firefighters’ mental health and wellbeing.”

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Last year, Cantwell introduced a bill, called Fire Ready Nation, to formalize and fund more firefighting duties by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which would, in turn, enhance the agency’s capacity to help fight wildfires.

“This bill will help our federal weather tracking agency – NOAA – deploy new technology that will boost computing power to improve wildfire forecasting and identify the impacts of changing weather conditions,” Cantwell said in an address last year. “It will test a new drone pilot program designed to gather critical fire information and survey post-fire damage – even at night – without endangering the lives of a pilot or crew members. And it will ensure NOAA has the resources to support our specially-trained forecasters serving alongside wildfire response teams.”

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Sen. Cantwell: WA will be ‘epicenter of severe wildfires’ in summer