The summer solstice is this weekend, the first day of summer. The latest summer weather outlook offers good odds of warmer and drier conditions into September.
Our spring – March, April and May were drier than average. Recent June rains have helped, but for the year, we are still behind average for precipitation with a stretch of warmer drier weather ahead later this week into the weekend and beyond.
All of these statistics and conditions do not bode well for the wildfire season. Some may argue that the wildfire season has already started. According to the Washington State Dept of Natural Resources, the state has already had over 400 fires thru the end of May – a new record number of fires for the first five months of any year. Some of those fires have occurred in the North Sound including a roadside fire along I-5 in Marysville in April.
We had a healthy mountain snowpack over the winter, meaning the fire season will be delayed in higher elevations until around the first of August. But the lowlands on both sides of the Cascades already have dry conditions thanks to the dry spring.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) indicates an above normal significant wildfire potential for July through September for Washington. This outlook continues a rising trend going back to the 1990s when an average of about 86,000 acres burned per year. In the 2000s, the average number of acres burned rose to 189,000, and in the period of 2015 to 2019, that average again rose to 488,000 acres. Last year, about 812,000 acres burned in the state, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, and the second highest number of burned acres in the state ever.
Reasons for the rise in acres burned point to decades of fire suppression and not letting nature burn off fallen trees and other debris, climate change resulting in warmer and drier conditions over the years, and more people living in more rural areas. Over 80 percent of wildfires are started by people, with lightning starting the remainder particularly in more remote locations.
The string of bad fire years since 2014 prompted elected officials to take more legislative action. The recent state budget to combat wildfires jumped to about $130 million over the next two years, and includes adding about 100 more firefighters and more National Guard training and deployments if/when fires break out. That much larger budget compares to about $50 million in recent bienniums. Unfortunately, the jump in wildfire protection and prevention funding will not start until the biennium begins on July 1st, too late for much use this year.
Yet, summer weather will dictate how the wildfire season will play out. A cooler wetter than average summer will help dampen the fire season. Last year, that was the case until August when much warmer, drier and windy conditions developed and quickly resulted in significant wildfires across the state into September. Last year also had more wildfire smoke throughout the region including the North Sound, making that three years out of the last four for that kind of poor air quality. If this wildfire season becomes significant, more wildfire smoke could blanket the North Sound again.
You can take action to help prevent any human wildfire starts, Visit firewise.org for all the details including building defensible space around your home or business. Most human fire starts are the result of tossing burning material out of vehicles, not snuffing campfires entirely out, losing control of debris pile burns, irresponsible use of fireworks, and loose vehicle tow chains sending sparks off the roadway into dry shoulder fine fuels like grass.
If all of us work to combat the threat of wildfire starts, perhaps we can sharply reduce the number of wildfires and enjoy a well-deserved wildfire smoke-free summer that kicks off this weekend.