Buehner: Could the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 happen again?

Jun 7, 2024, 5:28 AM | Updated: 5:55 am

Image: Firefighters prepare to battle a new fire that started near the Manastash Vista Point along ...

Firefighters prepare to battle a new fire that started near the Manastash Vista Point along Interstate 82 in Ellensburg on July 23, 2023. Dry and windy weather fueled wildfires in the state of Washington. (Photo: David Ryder, Getty Images)

(Photo: David Ryder, Getty Images)

Thursday, June 6 marked the date of the tragic 1889 Great Seattle Fire that burned 25 blocks of downtown waterfront Seattle 135 years ago.

As the weather heads into a stretch of warmer and drier than average conditions, could it happen again?

From Feliks Banel: Fires devastated Seattle, Ellensburg, Spokane in 1889

There were no precise weather records taken on June 6, 1889. But it is known that spring had been a warm and dry one. On the day of the Great Seattle Fire, an inadvertent spilled glue pot in a waterfront carpentry shop started the historic blaze. Stiff winds coming off Elliott Bay that warm afternoon helped fan the flames and spread the fire from one wood structure and building to the next with ease. Those interested can visit what’s left on Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour.

Technology may have improved, but these fires can still happen

So far this century, there have been a greater number of warm dry springs and summers, including in 2023. 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 rapid spreading fires. Yet, these kinds of fires can still happen thanks to warm dry and breezy weather conditions. Already this spring, consider the wildfires that erupted along the interior of Western Canada, and currently in California during an early season heat wave with temperatures soaring into the triple digits.

Despite Western Washington’s reputation to be a wet place, recent summers have actually started earlier and end later, resulting in drier conditions. These environments have made it easier for wildfires to start. Last year, though it is hard to fathom, Western Washington had more wildfire starts than Eastern Washington did according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

MyNorthwest weather: Will a ‘Heat Dome’ be part of the upcoming Seattle summer?

Looking ahead, the latest seasonal weather outlook for Western Washington heading into September, shows good odds of temperatures that will be warmer than average and chances stacked toward precipitation that will leave the area drier than normal. Much of the state is already in abnormally dry or moderate drought status and summer starts on the June 21 solstice. Parts of Western Washington are between two and four inches of rain behind average for the year thus far.

Weather can impact the size, scope of fires

With drier warmer weather in store, grasses will be drying out soon, setting up the possibility for grass fires. It is important to keep burning materials inside vehicles and tighten up tow chains to avoid sparks from dragging lines in order to avoid roadside fire starts.

Neighborhoods also can be at risk to wildfire when warm dry and windy conditions unfold like what happened on the Seattle waterfront in 1889. Recall the Oakland Hills fire in October 1991 when a wind-whipped fire burned close to 3,500 homes and apartments, killing 25 and injuring 150.

More from Ted Buehner: What led to Washington drought as wildfires, rainbows on the horizon

Another example were a number of wind-driven wildfires in Western Oregon during Labor Day Weekend of 2020 near Medford, east of Eugene/Springfield, east of Salem and in the Columbia Gorge, burning thousands of homes. About that same time, the Sumner Grade Fire occurred on a windy day, burning four homes and temporarily displacing hundreds of residents.

Last year in Spokane County, winds blew the Oregon Road and Gray wildfires through several neighborhoods, consuming several hundred homes and resulting in two fatalities. Protecting neighborhoods against wildfires is critical.

2023 Washington wildfires: Gray, Oregon City blazes kill 2, lead to lost structures

Now is the time to prepare and build wildfire defensible space around homes and businesses. Consider this effort a part of spring yard cleaning. Visit for all the tips such as moving firewood away from a home, trimming tree limbs up off the ground to above your head, and cleaning roofs and gutters of debris. Help Smokey Bear and consider his motto – Only You Can Prevent Wildfires – whether in urban or rural areas.

Ted Buehner is the KIRO Newsradio meteorologist. You can read more of Ted’s stories here and follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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Buehner: Could the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 happen again?