Wildfire Concerns Mount With Hot, Dry Weather Outlook in Washington

The western half of the state has a particularly high fire risk this year

By Natalie Guevara, Seattle PI

Western Washington is starting off wildfire season on the wrong foot.

It may not feel like it, thanks to a snowy February that broke records, but the state had an abnormally dry winter overall. Drought is expected to set in through much of the western half of the state by early summer, according to the National Weather Service.

April 1 is typically the day the state reaches its peak snowpack. Right now, it’s at about 80 percent of what is normal — again, despite how much lowland snow the region saw a couple of months ago.

“Not really great news in terms of how much water we’ll have later in the summer,” said Karin Bumbaco, assistant state climatologist. “Last year at this time, we had really good snowpack throughout the state.”

Dry conditions heading into the warmer seasons has its own dangers. Significant wildfire risk has been rated as above normal by the National Interagency Fire Center for most areas west of the Cascades.

“That concerns us because a lot of us on the west side are not prepared for wildfires to come to our door,” said Janet Pearce, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources’ wildfire division.

In some areas, wildfire season has already begun. Fifty fires were reported the week of March 18. Just one was east of the Cascades.

“It was early, but it wasn’t a big surprise,” Pearce said. “These things happen.”

Those fires burned over 300 acres in southwest Washington — more than a month before the first major wildfire in Washington last year, which ignited on April 24, 2018 and burned about 20 acres near Woodland, according to KPTV. A total of 1,743 fires in 2018 torched 438,833.7 acres statewide.

DNR has already started preparing for the fire season, which is typical for this time of year.

“We always gear up like it’s going to be a very bad wildfire season,” Pearce said. “Anymore, that’s all we get anyway, and it’s so sad.”

Fire crews have already begun training for this season, including air attack training, and recruitment of new firefighters is underway. Fire academies will begin in May and June. Meanwhile, conditions are being monitored so crews can be pre-positioned to areas where fires are likely.

An important thing to remember, however, is it’s still early.

“We still have time to get precipitation,” Bumbaco said. “It’s not like we’re totally in our dry summertime yet.”

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