Wildfires Already? We’re Working Hard, and Need Your Help, Too

Winter hadn’t even ended, but helicopters dumped buckets of water over wildfires. Engines with 10-person hand crews rushed to the front lines, and our dispatch centers quickly allocated resources to the threatened Western Washington communities.

You read that right: Western Washington.

Since Monday, firefighters responded to 50 wildfires in Washington state, with 49 of those were on the west side. 

During a few of those fires, law enforcement ordered evacuations and road closures for Kelso and Longview residents in Cowlitz County on Wednesday. (Find the latest info on that fire here.)

Washington State Department of Natural Resources Meteorologist Josh Clark, who forecasts fire weather and danger, calls this dry spell on the western side of the state an anomaly.

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A firefighter at work during late winter/early spring wildfires.

“Offshore, easterly winds are a known, somewhat common, critical fire weather pattern for Western Washington where high pressure sets up east of the Cascades and low pressure on the west side. These winds usually come with warm and very dry conditions that promote considerable west side fire activity,” Clark said.

This event stands out not because of the phenomenon but the timing. Generally, this pattern occurs during our peak fire season in late August through early October. To have east winds in excess of 35-50 mph, relative humidities between 11 and25 percent, and temperatures reaching near 80 degrees Fahrenheit in March is extremely rare. These conditions, combined with abundant dead or dormant grasses and shrubs, allowed for a ‘perfect storm’ of weather and fuels conditions to bring about considerable fire activity over the past few days.”

Although more moisture is expected in the coming days, and this dry spell is an anomaly for this time of year, DNR is still expecting warm and dry conditions over the summer.  

This week should be a reminder to Western Washingtonians that we need to practice wildfire prevention all year long.  Last year, wildfire investigations found most wildfires in Washington state are human-caused.

So with the western side of the state becoming more populated, and our summers becoming hotter and drier, everyone needs to be intentional about their actions.

Prevention is simple. Don’t have anything dragging on your car. Put out your campfire (drown it, stir it, make sure all embers are out). Know the wildfire risk in your community. Check conditions before lighting a burn pile.

By taking these simple steps, you can help protect our communities and landscapes.

“Wildfire is a Washington state problem,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who oversee DNR wildfire operations and the largest firefighting team in the state. “While my team and I get ready for the season, we need the public to help us out by being wildfire aware and practicing prevention.”

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File photo: Commissioner Franz visited Western Washington Interagency Fire Training Academy last year as firefighters worked a fire suppression exercise.

At the peak of wildfire season last year, 3,000 firefighters were out on the landscapes. All helicopters were in the skies. Every engine on the fireline. Despite prepositioning our resources — a strategy that places firefighters in at-risk areas — our team was stretched thin.

Franz is working every day with the Legislature to get a $55 million wildfire and forest health package approved. It would get more full-time firefighters, air support, and invest in treatments that would restore the health of our forests.

“I’m proud of my wildfire team’s hard work this week. They were prepared, and we were able to keep most of these wildfires small,” said Franz. “However, going into late spring and summer, in order to better protect communities, we need more resources as conditions get hotter and drier. We need funding that will staff full-time firefighters, support more air assets, and carry out treatments that restore the health of our forests.”