Washington's Wildfire Season Gets Off to Abrupt, Early Start


SEATTLE — Washington's wildfire season got off to an abrupt and early start this month when two separate blazes tore through dry, steep forest, fueling worries about what lies ahead.

Fire officials say they were surprised to see wildfires burning this early west of the Cascades Mountains, particularly one that scorched nearly 300 acres about 60 miles from Seattle.

While the long-range outlook indicates this year's wildfire season won't be as extreme as last year, state officials say they're nevertheless training and preparing for a difficult fire season ahead.

"These fires have shown us that with a warming climate, we know it's (the season) going to be longer, and we should be prepared as best we can," state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said in an interview.

On the heels of two consecutive record-setting wildfire seasons, the state Department of Natural Resources is training more wildland firefighters, equipping local agencies with fire equipment, adding aircraft, radios and other equipment.

More than 200 local, state and federal firefighters, including dozens from the Washington National Guard, trained in Yakima last week.

DNR is using $6.7 million in disaster response money that the Legislature approved in April. However, Goldmark said it's only about one-fourth of the $24 million he had requested and isn't enough to prevent a possible repeat of last year.

Three firefighters were killed last August during the state's worst wildfire season. More than 1 million acres, or about 1,570 square miles, burned as wildfires torched everything from rain forests on the Olympic Peninsula to drought-stressed forests in eastern Washington. The 2014 season, the second worst in state history, also saw more than 468 square miles burned.

"Based on our experience over the past two years, and data that shows long-term warming across Washington landscapes, it's prudent to be prepared," said DNR spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser.

This year, unusually dry, warm weather in April rapidly melted mountain snowpack, dried out trees, shrubs and other fuels and primed the forests in Snohomish County for two fires, which were contained last week.

"These early fires on the west side are unusual, but they can occur if you have the right conditions," said Dave Peterson, a research biologist with the U.S Forest Service.

Washington had its second warmest April on record. Averaged across the state, temperatures were 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the normal over a recent 30-year period, said Karin Bumbaco, assistant state climatologist.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center said Thursday that above normal temperatures are likely across Washington this summer. It also said La Nina, the cooler flip side to El Nino, is around the corner.

John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, said Thursday that the region is likely to see a normal fire year with a typical number of large fires. He forecasts hotter weather in the first part of summer will likely moderate in the later half as La Nina takes hold.

Meanwhile, those who work with homeowners to prepare for wildfires say they're seeing more interest, even in typically wetter western Washington.

More communities across the state are taking steps to prepare their homes from wildfire risks and joining voluntary programs such as the National Fire Protection Association's Firewise Communities.

In Skamania and Klickitat Counties, in recent years, more than 500 households have been getting their home assessed for wildfire hazards, improving the defensible space around their homes or participating in other services, said Dan Richardson with the Underwood Conservation District.

He said he thinks many more people, both east and west of the Cascades, are recognizing the need to do what they can to reduce wildfire risks. There's been a particular surge in Western Skamania County compared to drier, more wildfire-prone eastern parts of the county.

"It's never too early to get ready," Goldmark said.