What WA’s cold, wet spring means for summer wildfires

What WA's cold, wet spring means for summer wildfires

“We typically see grass and cheatgrass that grows anywhere from eight to 12 inches, and this year we’re seeing it over two feet tall,” says DJ Goldsmith, deputy fire chief of the Yakima Fire Department. More dry plant fuel means intense fires that spread fast, stressing fire crews with limited resources.

These fast-burning fuels are already presenting problems for Yakima County. During a fire call in Naches Wednesday evening, the fires were burning more intensely than Goldsmith expected, with notably tall flames and sparks jumping roads. “I was actually pretty impressed. I didn’t think we were that dry yet,” he says.

The cheatgrass made it worse. Typically, where he might see three-to-four-foot flames, these flames burned twice that height.

Marc Eylar, assistant coordinator for the Kittitas County Noxious Weed Control Board, says lots of other annual weeds and grasses are growing well this year.

And weed experts like Eylar, who works regularly with ranchers and farmers, say it will be bad if the grasses dry out before someone grazes or mows them. Cheatgrass is so prevalent that it’s not managed or controlled as a noxious weed. “Most years it’s kind of a challenge to find enough range for a lot of the livestock herds around here, but this year, it’s almost been the opposite. There’s so much food this year that I’ve heard even ranchers say they don’t even have enough cows to graze it, which is an unusual thing to have,” Eylar says.

Anyone with grassy acreage should consider trying to create defensible space around homes and buildings by removing these grasses — especially non-native ones, which tend to be the best fire fuel.

The state department of natural resources does not have programs to remove fine fuels like cheatgrass explicitly for fire prevention. However, they do mow a few sites to reduce grass fuels in advance of fire season on the West side of the state, and do a lot of weed control in Eastern Washington, generally, says department representative Thomas Kyle-Milward.

As meteorologists monitor for lightning and big winds that start and spread fires, scientists and firefighters alike are concerned that people are breathing sighs of relief about rain. They worry people will be less cautious when starting campfires, grilling, or burning yard waste and debris outside, especially on high-burn weekends like July 4th.

“People getting careless with debris burns have been our number-one cause of fires so far this year. And I can see that continuing into the early summer,” Dehr says.

Goldsmith says he’s hearing less concern from locals about the coming season, but in his mind, the season is just delayed. “[Even] a normal fire season is still a bad fire season in Washington,” he says.

How we’re preparing for wildfire

One silver lining of this wet season is that there’s been more time for firefighters to prepare, and to train them. “We don’t want to sit back on our laurels,” says Angie Lane, who works on fire intelligence, planning and firefighting training with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Washington state employs 602 funded fire personnel, with slightly more firefighters than in past years. Last year, the natural resources department issued 6,050 incident qualification cards to people who are qualified to fight fires.

But there’s still concern about hiring enough firefighters. Bringing in firefighters from other states and countries thanks to mutual-aid agreements can help. “The worry point would be, what’s happening in those other areas, if they need those resources at the same time we do,” Lane says.

Concern about competition for resources is something Saltenberger has been hearing from his vantage point as a regional fire meteorologist. “Many of our existing resources are down in Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico right now. Eventually, we’ll have to pull them back,” he says.

Looking to the future, Washington can’t rely on rains to reduce wildfire risk. “At some point it doesn’t really matter… how much rain we get in the spring, the summer is still going to be hot and dry,” Dehr says. “We’re gonna keep burning more and more acres in the Pacific Northwest if we don’t have better management practices, if we don’t start adapting to climate change a bit.”

Despite the very low risk of an extreme fire season in Western Washington, there’s always a chance of wildfire smoke blowing in from states and countries well beyond our borders. Experts recommend weatherproofing your living situation, buying or building an air filterkeeping tabs on air quality alertswearing masks (like N95s) during smoke events, and identifying other ways to limit your exposure in advance of wildfire smoke.

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