(TNS) - Meteorologists and fire planners don’t expect an especially active wildfire season in the Northwest this year, but at the scale of Clark County, Wash. it’s hard to predict.
There’s an old irony about forecasting a fire season, said Tim Dawdy, division chief with Clark County Fire & Rescue: Either it’s a dry and nasty spring, which means lots of dry vegetation to burn, therefore lots of fire. Or, it’s a lush and wet spring, which means lots of vegetation that will dry out and burn later.
“My crystal ball’s no better than yours,” he said, adding there are steps residents can take to stay fire safe.
One of the biggest sources of new wildfire starts in Clark County, he said, is backyard burning.
“This is the time of year that everyone wants to start cleaning up their yards and doing maintenance around their yards,” he said. “What we want people to do is make sure they do it right.”
Dawdy encouraged anyone doing backyard burns, if they’re in a jurisdiction that allows it, to check whether there’s a burn ban in effect for air quality and get a burn permit, which will outline best practices for safe burning.
Those includes keeping fires away from structures, not letting them burn overnight and checking piles to make sure they’re out. Last year and summers before, firefighters responded to piles that re-lit after apparently being out for weeks, he said.
“These were burn piles that had been out for weeks and weeks and weeks — or so the people thought,” he said.
Dawdy said the time of greatest risk locally usually comes in the late summer and early fall, when the east winds pick up through the Columbia River Gorge.
Every one of the major fires that has ever stuck the Cowlitz-Clark-Skamania counties region came after a period of extended dry and hot weather, coupled with a dry east wind.
Many of the re-ignited pile fires local firefighters respond to, he said, were rekindled by an east wind.
“When we have periods of east wind I want our citizens to go out and check out burn piles and make sure those burn piles don’t come back to life,” he said.
For the greater Northwest, meteorologists and fire planners at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, don’t expect this fire season to be especially more calm or active than other years, and say the potential for significant wildfires should be about average.
According to the most recent June-through-September forecast from the fire center, above-normal precipitation has led to more green, growing vegetation all around the West. At the same time, generally cooler temperatures in the region have meant a slower pace to the melting of the snowpack nearly all over the West.
That, forecasters say, should lead to a delayed start to fire seasons in higher-elevation areas, parts of the Northwest and, possibly, a shorter fire season overall.
Rainfall near normal levels is forecast along the Pacific coast from June through September, but it’s possible a drier-than-normal pattern could develop over the western part of the region in mid-August and September, according to forecasters.
The latest climate outlooks don’t indicate unusual extremes of rainfall or temperature through this month, but warmer and drier weather are likely for July through September.
Still, said John Saltenberger, a meteorologist at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, don’t bet the farm.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t that great of a relationship between antecedent season snowpack and the following fire season” in the Pacific Northwest, he said. “It’s the weather during the fire season that’s the most important factor.”
A “normal” forecast doesn’t preclude large fires. The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which manages firefighting strategy throughout the region, recorded an average of about 74 large fires from 2006 to 2015 in the Northwest. The region had 39 large fires in 2010 and 101 in 2015.
Wildfires are usually considered large when they grow to more than 100 acres in timber or 300 acres in grass.
If July and August turn out to be warmer and drier than normal, the potential for significant fire activity ought to be about normal as well, depending on how much lightning the Northwest sees, forecasters said.
However, Saltenberger said, there’s no way to predict combinations of hot, dry weather and lightning.
“It’s important to remember we get dry enough to have large fires just about every summer. It’s quite rare when there are exceptions to that,” he said.
Last year’s fire season was fairly typical. In 2016, more than 67,500 wildfires burned about 8,600 square miles, or about 5.5 million acres of land, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Oregon and Washington saw about 800 square miles of burned land in more than 2,500 fires.
The year before saw about as many fires, but close to double the acreage, according to the fire center.
The greatest risk regionally, Saltenberger said, will likely come from the huge influx of tourists — 1 million people, by some estimates — flocking to Oregon for the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, many to some of the drier parts of the state.
“It’s unprecedented,” he said.
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