Fire season heats up quickly in state
Washington state is bracing for a long, potentially intense fire season. Officials plead for extra care with fireworks and campfires over the holiday weekend.
Seattle Times staff reporters
The recent statewide blast of heat and the approach of a long, warm and dry Fourth of July weekend have forecasters, fire officials and land managers wary.
“Fire season is already here,” said Ted Buehner, warning-coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Seattle.
Over the next few days, fireworks — both legal and illegal varieties — are certain to be among the top causes of fires and injuries.
On both sides of the Cascade Mountains, grass and brush are drying out quickly and will provide a ready starting place for fires, Buehner said.
In Southeast Washington — typically the state’s hottest area and the first to dry out — fire districts are already battling brush and range fires, including one that grew to 3,000 acres in Asotin County, he said.
This week, the state Department of Natural Resources enacted a burn ban, to extend through the end of September, on the 13 million acres for which it provides fire protection. That includes state, tribal and private forest lands — but not federal lands.
Already this year, the DNR has had 57 fires that started from outdoor burn piles, burning more than 200 acres, according to an agency spokeswoman.
The burn ban does not prohibit recreational fires in approved fire pits in state, county, municipal or other campgrounds.
Long-range outlooks from the Weather Service Climate Prediction Center indicate the state is likely to get less rain than usual over the next few months, while many parts of the state experience above-average temperatures.
That combination could extend the state’s fire season into mid- to late September, said weather-service meteorologist Steve Reedy.
Mercifully, the sizzling hot temperatures of the past few days are easing. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which hit a July 1 record of 89 degrees Monday, is forecast to have a high of 80 Wednesday and 75 on the Fourth of July.
In Eastern Washington, where triple-digit temperatures were common early this week, temperatures in many areas were expected to ease back into the 90s Wednesday and the 80s for Independence Day.
A prolonged damp period in mid- to late June has helped keep fire danger low at both the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
This weekend, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Fire Service personnel will be patrolling for abandoned campfires and fireworks. Fireworks will be confiscated from anyone who has them.
Spokeswoman Robin DeMario said visitors to the forest often walk away from campfires that appear extinguished but are still dangerous. Campers should remember to leave fire pits only when they are cool to the touch, especially as the weather gets hotter and drier, she said.
“If a little wind comes up, it can flare those embers into flames,” she said.
At the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Southwest Washington, officials are advising visitors to be careful with campfires, and reminding them that fireworks are prohibited.
Josie Williams, spokeswoman for Eastside Fire & Rescue, said fires are increasingly common in the “urban interface,” areas where residential development reaches into rural, forested land.
She said homeowners should take several steps to lower their fire risk, such as clearing brush in the yard, moving woodpiles away from structures and clearing gutters and roofs of dried leaves and needles.
The 19 firefighter deaths in Arizona this week bore some similarities to a Washington fire in July 2001 that trapped and killed four firefighters in Okanogan County.
Like the Arizona victims, the four who died fighting the Thirtymile fire north of Winthrop attempted to get into their fire shelters as the blaze overran them.
But unlike Arizona’s victims, who were part of an elite firefighting unit, two of the four who died in the Thirtymile fire were rookies who had only recently graduated from high school.
After an investigation found safety-procedure violations, an incident commander was charged with manslaughter. The charge was reduced in a plea agreement to two counts of lying to investigators.
Jack Broom: email@example.com or 206-464-2222. Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Seattle Times archives and news services.