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Early and Intense, Wildfire Season Rages in Pacific Northwest

The 379 fire starts are nearly 100 more than at this time last year.

by Jim Camden, The Spokesman-Review / July 9, 2015
Fire season is off to a fast start in the Pacific Northwest. Shutterstock

TNS - The people managing the Department of Natural Resources Dispatch Center are acutely aware of how bad the Northwest’s wildfire season is so far, and how much worse it can get.


• A fire is burning unchecked in a portion of a rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula.

• A fire that started in Canada burned across the border into Washington because British Columbia firefighters are so stretched they couldn’t get to it.

• The Sleepy Hollow fire that started in the hills outside Wenatchee jumped more than a mile and a half into the city to start a fire in a fruit packing warehouse.

• The 379 fire starts so far this year are almost twice what they were at the same time in 2012 and nearly 100 greater than at the same time last year, when the state had the biggest wildfire in its history. All this before late July and August, often when wildfires are at their worst.

So when a report of a wildfire like this week’s Little Spokane River fire comes in, they try to hit it as hard as they can, as early as they can.

“This is of great concern,” Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said as staff homed in on the statewide fire map to show the area northwest of Spokane. “It’s a hot fire. It’s moving fairly aggressively.”

Tuesday afternoon, the department had pulled some aerial resources off other fires, and the map was showing three Fire Boss air tankers making frequent trips over the fire after filling up their tanks in the Spokane River and a helicopter dropping water picked up from the Little Spokane. A plane with fire retardant was making runs from its base in Moses Lake. The map, which updates every three minutes, showed the steady progress of the aircraft, represented by colored icons.

Another map monitored lightning strikes during the past 48 hours, while a nearby screen showed weather patterns. When lightning is forecast for areas in the state, as it is for some days this week, the dispatch center tries to pre-deploy some resources to be ready for fires lightning strikes might start. But they have to be careful not to over-commit resources to have some available to fight fires caused accidentally or deliberately by humans.

“We’re trying to get some of (the fire crews) just a moment’s rest because we know there’s more lightning coming,” Goldmark said.

From a couple of rooms in Olympia, DNR staff members juggle resources that include eight helicopters, three airplanes, 98 engines and 400 seasoned firefighters. It also can call on 700 more of what Goldmark calls “militia” – DNR employees in other jobs who are trained and certified as firefighters who can drop their normal duties and be sent to fires. It also has interagency agreements with federal offices such as the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and Park Service, and local fire departments, and interstate agreements for aid. Often it can coordinate with Canadian agencies in British Columbia, but right now, that’s not possible because they are fighting so many fires in British Columbia. The Newby Lake fire in rugged terrain just north of the border recently burned into Washington northwest of Oroville.

If DNR exhausts all of those resources, it can call on the Washington National Guard.

Still, Goldmark is worried about having enough resources this year, which saw record temperatures in May and June and lower-than-normal rain. The Olympic Peninsula, which contains temperate rain forests and is usually the state’s wettest real estate, has none of its normal snow depth and has had “no significant rain in a very long time,” he said. The Paradise fire in rugged terrain along the Queets River in the national park is likely to burn all summer, he said.

“I’m hoping it’s going to rain sometime this week,” Goldmark said, although the weather forecast for much of Washington is not promising.

The state also has fewer firefighting resources than 10 years ago because of cutbacks during the recession. Goldmark lobbied for $4.5 million this spring to help rebuild DNR firefighting resources; the 2015-17 operating budget just recently passed and signed has only an extra $1.2 million for firefighting.

“I am bitterly disappointed about that,” he said.

He also doubts the $26 million or so set aside for firefighting costs in that budget will last through the two-year cycle if this year and next are like 2014. The Legislature may have to add more funding in next year’s supplemental budget.

Gov. Jay Inslee and some climate scientists have said last year’s weather and this year’s could be standard by the middle of the century. Goldmark said he has asked scientists if the state already is seeing the results of climate change and they tell him it’s within natural variables.

“If that’s the case, I’d hate to see what climate change will be like,” he said.


©2015 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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