Aug 2, 2023 - News

Predictions for hotter, drier late summer spark Washington wildfire fears

An image of wildfire burning in dry grass in Washington state.

Driven by dry and windy weather, a fire near Ellensburg burned along Interstate 82 in July 2023. Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

With drought declared in 12 Washington counties, several large fires and dozens of smaller ones burning in the state and temperatures predicted to climb, officials fear what the coming months may bring.

Why it matters: Wildfire season across the West Coast has become longer, hotter and drier as climate change leads to larger, more frequent wildfires. Studies show that these contemporary fires are exhibiting more extreme behavior, making them more difficult to contain.

Driving the news: Though El Niño's impacts are felt in the Pacific Northwest more during the winter, current conditions increase our chances for a warmer and drier than normal August and September, according to the Office of the Washington State Climatologist.

  • As of Tuesday, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had responded to more than 1,000 fire incidents and battled 693 blazes that burned nearly 64,000 acres, according to department spokesperson Michael Kelly.
  • There are currently three active fires on DNR land: the Sourdough fire in North Cascades National Park, the West Hallett fire in the Spokane area and the Eagle Bluff fire in Okanogan County. The Eagle Bluff fire has caused evacuations on both sides of the Canadian border, burned more than 15,000 acres and is 10% contained.
  • The state is seeing up to 35% more fires in Western Washington than in the past, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz told Axios. In mid-July, West Pierce Fire and Rescue said they'd already put out nearly as many fires as they had in all of 2022.

What they're saying: "We are very dry and susceptible to burning," Franz said. "I sweat the summers now. I hold my breath and want to get through them as fast as possible."

Catch up quick: Franz only has to look to last year to see the challenges these fires bring. The Bolt Creek fire, which erupted Sept. 10, prompted emergency evacuations, blanketed the region with smoke for months and caused Seattle to register the worst air quality in the world.

Be smart: The state has seen a "huge" increase in the number of human-sparked blazes, according to the Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

  • At this time last summer, there had been 86 fires caused by humans or undetermined origins that impacted National Forest lands in Oregon and Washington compared to 197 so far this year, per the Forest Service.
  • In Washington, about 80 to 85% of the wildfires are sparked by humans, according to Franz.
  • Among the most common causes: Campfires, hot vehicles parked on dry grass and debris pile burning, especially on the traditionally wetter side of the state among people who are not used to how hot and dry it's become, said Franz.
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