Aug 17, 2023 - Climate

People cause most of Washington's wildfires

Data: Short, 2022, Spatial wildfire occurrence data for the United States; Note: Only includes fires with known origins. White areas had no reported fires; Map: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

People caused the vast majority of wildfires in Washington state over the past three decades, and the trend shows no sign of letting up, according to national data and state officials.

Why it matters: With climate change increasing wildfire risk throughout the West, human-caused fires can easily rage out of control, destroying buildings and threatening lives.

The latest: The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this week banned campfires on all of its state-protected lands, citing the risk of fires spreading amid unusually warm and dry weather conditions.

Zoom in: From 1992 to 2020, about 73% of wildfires in Washington state were caused by human activity, as opposed to natural phenomena like lightning strikes, a U.S. Forest Service analysis of wildfire data found.

  • Meanwhile, state officials estimate that in recent fire seasons, the share of human-caused wildfires has been even higher, at 85% to 90%.
  • That figure includes not only fires that resulted from power tools or cooking fires, but also from cars, debris burns and downed utility lines.

By the numbers: Through Aug. 1 of this year, DNR recorded 18 fires on its lands that were started by lightning strikes.

  • That's compared to 24 fires from debris burns and another 25 from sources like recreation, vehicles and fireworks, according to data the department shared with Axios.

Between the lines: While downed power lines have contributed to some large fires in Washington state — including the 2020 blaze that destroyed most of the Eastern Washington town of Malden —power lines hadn't been identified as the cause of any of the wildfires on DNR lands this year as of Aug. 1.

  • Overall, between 1992 and 2020, fewer than 3% of Washington's wildfires were caused by power utilities, according to the national wildfire analysis.

What they're saying: The vast majority of human-caused fires can be attributed to "people not paying attention," DNR spokesperson Thomas Kyle-Milward told Axios.

  • That can include people parking vehicles on dry grass instead of gravel or pavement, leaving burn piles unattended, or not fully extinguishing campfires before leaving an area, he said.

What we're watching: This year's fire season in Washington state hasn't proved especially destructive or smoky so far, but there's still a lot of summer left.

  • Last year, the Bolt Creek Fire that blanketed Seattle and much of the Puget Sound region in smoke didn't ignite until Sept. 10.

Be smart: State officials have compiled a list of wildfire prevention tips here.

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