Western Washington Avoids Wildfire Smoke Season


When Hilary Franz, Washington state’s commissioner of public lands, visited The Chronicle’s Editorial Board at the start of the summer, she warned of an upcoming wildfire season that once again could choke our air quality with irritating smoke for possibly most of the summer.

“We are in really bad shape. We are in extremely dry conditions,” she said. “We are, right now, expecting one of the worst fire seasons to date.”

It never happened, as wet and cool weather emerged throughout much of the summer.

On Monday morning, the Washington state Department of Natural Resources stated, “Fire season hasn’t been as severe on the westside as originally predicted, but we’re still not out of the woods for east wind events. They’re the most severe fire weather pattern for Western Washington and generally occur in late August through early October. They can cause late-season ignitions in the Cascades and on the westside.”

Despite the recent thunderstorm activity, the recent rains and lower temperatures have us breathing clean air.

“Thankfully, (the predicted) smokey scenario hasn’t played out this year,” as reported in the Washington Smoke Blog last week, which is a partnership between state, county, federal and tribes. “The chances of the smoke monster making a comeback are diminishing as the sun becomes more preoccupied with baking the southern hemisphere.”

The blog stated the number of wildfires in 2019 is lower than the years 2013 and 2016, which are recent low marks for Washington state. 

“Holdover fires continue to be discovered in Washington/Oregon but they are exhibiting low fire behavior with minimal spread potential,” the blog stated. “No new large fires have been reported and forecast fire danger is mostly low to moderate. However, there is still potential for brush fire in Southeastern Washington. “

We’re still not out of the woods, with federal and state lands not managed to the extent Franz would like. Last Friday’s morning lightning strikes and Saturday evening’s squall that boomed across East Lewis County show that the forests could still light up, but the probability is dropping along with forecast rain and lower temperatures, although some thunderstorms are forecast in the Cascades this evening.

Some fires continue to burn. The Left Hand Fire, located about 17 miles northwest of Naches, is under control but still smoking. It started on July 23 from a lighting strike. The fire is 3,406 acres in size, but the perimeter is 92 percent contained. At its peak 380 personnel fought the fire, which is now in mop-up mode. Still, the cost is staggering. To fight the Left Hand Fire alone, it cost the state over $8 million (fighting wildfires in Washington state has averaged a cost of $153 million the past few years).

Historically, the wildfire season decreases by the end of August, but doesn’t officially end until early October. 

Friday’s lightning strikes hit from much of Oregon and parts of Southwest Washington and Eastern Washington, causing scattered wildfires. The largest was in South Central Oregon with an estimated 93 acres burning, and reports of a larger fire near Prospect, Oregon, were filtering in Friday morning. In all, the Friday thunderstorms caused 116 fires covering 159 acres in Oregon, and six fires covering one acre in Washington, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

This week we’ll be an a pattern of rain and colder temperatures, except for Thursday when temps flash up into the low 80s. For most of the coming days, highs will max out in the low 70s; lows will drop to the lower 50s.

The past few years have not been so kind to those breathing what is usually the pristine air of Western Washington. Last year wildfire smoke from fires in Siberia, Canada, Eastern Washington and Oregon caused unhealthy air for weeks, according to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The same conditions occurred in 2017.

For now, anyway, residents of Western Washington can breath easy.