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The 2015 Goodell Creek fire led to the evacuation of communities in the North Cascades. Will future fires in Western Washington require sudden escapes? Photo: Seattle City Light

Western Washington wildfire: What are we facing this year and beyond?

Trying to predict the likelihood that Western Washington will be scorched with severe forest fires this summer must be an overwhelming job for our region’s meteorologists.

In the midst of a pandemic, fire managers and fire crews desperately would like to know what kinds of fire conditions they will face this year, not only in Western Washington but wherever they might be sent. Will firefighters be able to ward off the COVID-19 disease as they battle one blaze after another? How many times might they be called out to fight fires this year?

I recently learned at least two essential facts while writing about the history and future of Western Washington wildfire (“Fire danger returning to Western Washington”). One is that opposite sides of the Cascade Mountains are worlds apart when it comes to forest fires. Another is that we are likely to see more and more fires on the “wet side” of the mountains as time goes on — the result of climate change combined with what could be a returning drought cycle.

Do you recall the tragic wildfire that killed 86 people and destroyed 18,000 buildings in Paradise, Calif., during a hot, windy summer in 2018? I have been told by emergency managers and fire experts that something like that fire is not out of the question for Western Washington, where many communities are built among a dense growth of trees.

Fire forecasts

Understanding the long-term trends is one thing; predicting what will happen next is something else entirely. Forecast models suggest that the Northwest is likely to be warmer and drier than usual from now into August. Under those conditions, one might expect to see a more severe fire season this summer. Yet above-average rainfall so far in May has moistened that outlook to some degree.

Looking to the future has its limitations, according to meteorologist Steven Reedy of the National Weather Service in Seattle. Nothing is more important, he says, than the weather that occurs during the fire season itself — a period that begins, by definition, when forest fuels dry out.

In the video, Steve says he ought to place a paper bag over his head in embarrassment when explaining last year’s preseason predictions. In the spring (especially March, May and June), warm and dry weather was beginning to parch the forests, and three-month forecasts were calling for those conditions to persist.

“We went out with the message, “Hey, it’s going to be a warm and dry season,’” Steve recalls in the video, noting that fire activity was already picking up in May and June. “We were expecting the busy (fire) activity to persist… However, what happened during fire season was that temperatures came back down to near-normal. And increased rainfall in July and August — but most noticeably in September — pretty much put the kibosh on much of the fire season.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor currently shows “abnormally dry” conditions on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, in South Puget Sound and along the coast.
Map: National Drought Mitigation Center

For this year, abnormally dry conditions persist along the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains, down through South Puget Sound and along the coast, as you can see in the map at right. Recent intermittent rains have kept those conditions from growing worse or pushing the Puget Sound region into a more severe drought posture. Drought is expected to persist and could expand in some areas, suggesting an early start to this year’s fire season.

While it is possible that occasional rains could dampen the prospects of severe fire, another uncertain specter — the “BLOB” — is looming off the coast again, as University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass points out in a blog post this week.

“With all the scary news these days, you need to be prepared for one more unwelcome announcement: The BLOB is back, and its impacts are already apparent,” Cliff writes. “From past experience, we have learned that warmer-than-normal Pacific Ocean temperatures tend to increase the minimum temperatures west of the Cascade crest…

“As long as the BLOB-related warm water along our coast sticks around, our minimum temperatures each day will be several degrees above normal,” he continues. “Being BLOB-savvy I took advantage of its moderating effects and put in my tomato plants early.They are quite happy and growing well.”

Fighting fire in a pandemic

As fire managers and meteorologists contemplate what might happen with wildfire this year, agencies in charge of firefighting are preparing to do battle in new ways during this era of COVID-19. Considering how closely fire crews and command teams work together during a fire, it is easy to imagine how disease might spread were it to get started.

The Northwest is experiencing higher than normal precipitation so far in May.
Map: National Weather Service

In a news conference last week, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and other fire-related officials in Washington state talked about new ways of dealing with operations in a fire. For one thing, huge fire camps managed like small cities probably won’t be seen anytime soon.

Fire crews will be more independent and operate separately from others. Individual firefighters are less likely to be shifted among crews. Meals will probably be served in individual packages rather than from chow lines.

The number of managers working in a command center is likely to be smaller, with more support staff working remotely and sending out information online. Where feasible, a single command center may oversee more than one fire.

Washington State Forester George Geissler of the DNR said this is a year when some of the senior fire managers — such as those at high risk for disease complications — may choose not to participate.

The three-month outlook predicts lower-then-normal precipitation through August in the Northwest.
Map: National Weather Service

Logistics could be difficult, especially with the need to keep people safe while transporting them from one location to another. Efforts to bring in firefighters from other states could be slowed by safety protocols.

If families need to be evacuated, they are likely to go to motels away from the fire rather than being housed in gymnasiums or other large buildings.

Procedures will be in place if someone does show signs of the coronavirus, officials say. Being able to test firefighters quickly and isolate them from others will be part of the process.

Hilary Franz told of one seasonal firefighter, a wildfire engine crew leader from Northeast Washington, who was scheduled to report for duty on June 1. When he tested positive for the coronavirus, the man was sent home for isolation on the advice of officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infected man had made contact with one other firefighter, who also stayed home until he was determined to be free of the virus.

The public message that Hilary would like everyone to heed is to avoid any unnecessary fires. Although some fires are started by lightning each year, most are the result of carelessness from human beings — such as in burning brush, failing to put out campfires, tossing cigarettes, or operating equipment that can produce sparks.

Fire close to home

Since forest fires have been few and far between in Western Washington, those of us who live in the woods tend to be lackadaisical about preparing our property for a dangerous wildfire that could destroy our homes. People who have asked for help from experts in preparing “defensible space” around their houses say the suggestions are not terribly imposing. At the end of my larger story, I wrote a small piece to help people locate assistance.

In writing the story, I became enamored with the heart-pounding stories about people evacuating their homes in the face of an oncoming fire. It would be hard to leave one’s house and possessions, hoping that what had been done around the property might prevent devastation. The video at right is from a British newsreel that describes the 1951 Forks fire.

Folks in parts of Eastern Washington have become more attuned to the need to evacuate because of wildfire, but I fear that the future may hold even more evacuations for Western Washington. As I describe in my story, thinning the forests to reduce the severity of wildfire is a practice that can work in Eastern Washington, but it is not a practical solution for the west side of the mountains, where the vegetation grows extremely fast. Here, the fuel loads are heavy, and there’s not much to be done about that.

Next to the risk of losing one’s house in a fire, the most overlooked issue for Western Washington residents seems to be the smoke from a large fire occurring anywhere in this region. Even healthy people can suffer the effects of smoke, which can be deadly for those with asthma or other respiratory impairments. As fire season approaches this year, I’m hearing of more concerns from health officials about how COVID-19 patients might suffer even more if forced to endure smoke on top of their other health problems.

The history of wildfire in Western Washington is not widely known, which can cause us to believe that our “asbestos forests” will last forever. But when fires do come, they can be fierce and unforgiving. How should we think about wildfire in Western Washington?

Josh Halofsky, a research scientist at the DNR who helped a lot with my story, was among the experts who compared historical wildfires in Western Washington to the infrequent Cascadia subduction earthquakes. The last subduction quake to cause a geological upheaval in our region was determined to be in the year 1700 with a magnitude between 8.7 to 9.2.

It seems like a strange coincidence that 1701 is given as the best estimate for the last devastating fire that occurred throughout Western Washington, a fire that burned an estimated 3 million to 10 million acres. At the upper end of that range, the area is roughly equal to 10 Olympic National Parks.

So while we’re in the midst of a pandemic that caught most of us by surprise and while we’re trying to come to grips with the slower-moving climate crisis, we must not shrink from the challenge of a devastating earthquake or firestorm that could be just around the corner.

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