by Jack Russillo
Washington’s 2021 fire season has already begun and forecasts are saying that it could be just as bad as — and potentially worse than — the 2020 season that saw nearly a million acres burn and more incidents of wildfire than the historic 2015 fire season.
In the latest session, the State Legislature passed House Bill 1168 that will allocate more than $125 million over the next two years to firefighting and forest restoration efforts across the state to tackle wildfires, an increasingly destructive issue for Washingtonians on the west side of the Cascades, even in urban areas. In recent decades, more people have moved into forestlands, and this creates more challenges for responding to wildfires on the borders of urban areas, the bill says.
“Because the climate is changing, we in western Washington are experiencing a drier climate and we’ve had wildland fires in March, which is pretty much unheard of,” said Battalion Chief Brian Dodge of the Puget Sound Fire Authority. “It’s an issue that everyone here on the west side needs to be aware of. And because of the milder winters and the warmer summers, it’s going to continue. It’s all about climate change. It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, it’s happening. Because our weather is changing, it puts us at greater risk for these fires. And because we haven’t had these fires regularly, which leaves a lot of dead and down fuel on the ground, which puts us at risk for more intense wildfires.”
Already this year, a burn ban was in effect until the last week of April, when the National Weather Service reported that Sea-Tac recorded seven consecutive days of at least 70 degree-weather last month, which beat the previous record of six days in a row that was set earlier in April.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) responded to more than 90 fires in a single week in mid-April this year, including an approximately 50-acre grass and timber fire east of Auburn. By the end of the month, 280 wildfires had burned about 700 acres across the state, including an all-time record of 224 fires in the month of April, surpassing the record set in April 2020.
Nearly half of Washington, including parts of the west side of the state, is currently experiencing “moderate drought”, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System — a situation which can increase fire dangers. Twenty percent of the state, mostly in southeast Washington, is undergoing “severe drought,” where widespread dry grasses can help lead to a greater number of wildfires.
“The fire season is going to be similar to what it was last year,” said Dodge. “We’re going to have a pretty active wildland season.”
According to data provided by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which doesn’t count fires on DNR lands, 25 fires of at least five acres were reported in Washington this year through the end of April. Eleven of those occurred in western Washington.
“This is no longer just an Eastside problem,” said Janet Pearce, the communications manager for the DNR, in an email. “Some of the worst fires this past April were in Western Washington. We have a long way to go, but this bill can help us turn the tide in the coming years.”
While there were about the same amount of wildfires in the west side of the state during the same time period in 2020, the fires have come earlier in 2021. King County’s first fire of at least five acres in 2020 came in May, but by the end of April 2021, the County had already had three. In Pierce County, where the first five-acre fire didn’t come until July in 2020, four fires of at least five acres had been reported by the end of April of this year.
Wildfires on the state’s west side have become larger and more common in recent decades, which affects the growing number of people moving into forested areas. About $20 million of the funds from HB 1168 will go toward “community resilience,” which will come in the form of education and outreach from local fire authorities around the state to help prevent “wildland/urban interface” fires, which have been increasing as more people have moved into neighborhoods near wooded spaces.
According to the bill, the “number of small forestland owners increased 8.5 percent from 201,000 in 2007 to 218,000 in 2019. The number of small forestland owner parcels increased 2.1 percent from 256,500 to 261,800. This rapid land use change creates significant challenges for implementing forest health and wildfire response actions in the wildland urban interface.”
“The more populated we get, the more we build out into the interface,” said Dodge. “The further we get out into the woods, it’s no different than having more incursions with bears and mountain lions and those things. Now, we’re having incursions with all the flora and fauna, all the trees and such. When we build a house in that area, we’re building a house with all that fuel around it.”
New strategies, equipment use, and training specifically meant for managing fires in these interface areas are being developed and taught across the country. In the Puget Sound region, the South King County Fire Training Consortium is the agency that trains all of the South King County fire departments, and it is the only department in the country that has the ability to teach its own instructors a new, important wildland/urban interface training. The training is designed for firefighters that normally fight structure fires and it teaches them strategies to manage fires in populated areas that are near sections of forest and prevent them from spreading further into the interface or onto other structures. Dodge, who was one of 10 instructors chosen around the country to teach this wildland/urban interface training, hosted a training for local firefighting departments in March that will help them to better address the challenges that urban/wildland interface fires present.
The passage of House Bill 1168 will provide the funds to increase training opportunities like the wildland/urban interface to help improve DNR wildfire management efforts, but it will also add expensive equipment and resources that will be utilized in tandem with local firefighting departments when they need assistance with a large blaze near suburban centers.
“[The DNR has] resources we just don’t have,” said Jordan Simmonds, a wildland firefighter instructor for the South King County Training Consortium. “Helicopters, bulldozers, 20-person hand crews, just to name a few. It’s going to be a big help to us. As those funds become available, it’s going to become super helpful, not only to them protecting their land but also being able to help out their partners, their neighbors, like us.”
Property owners and residents of the wildland/urban interface can also take steps to prepare their homes and educate themselves on the risk of wildfire. People can check how Firewise their homes and properties are, as well as what “S-FACTS” factors firefighters use to determine how they manage a fire to help them and where landowners can find room to improve their preparedness levels.
“These fires are something that maybe we could get away with ignoring in the past,” said Simmonds. “Now, it’s becoming more and more clear that we can’t get away with missing it anymore.”
Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
📸 Featured Image: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee stands with firefighters as they survey the scene during the 2020 fire season. Image is attributed to the Flickr account of Gov. Jay and First Lady Trudi Inslee (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-ND 2.0 license).
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