Warm, dry winter could lead to bad wildfire season in Northwest


The relatively balmy winter in the Northwest may have made it comfortable to be outside, but it’s done no favors for this year’s wildfire season.

The warmer, drier conditions have already led in the past week to a 100-acre fire in Eastern Oregon and a 150-acre fire south of Spokane. The Eastern Washington fire in particular, as well as smaller fires nearby, has fire officials worried.

Brush fires and wildland fires are typically rare this time of year, and a fire this large this early in the season is even rarer, (said Spokane County Fire District 3 Duty Officer Arron Hess).

“The last two winters have been very, very mild,” he said. “If things do continue this way it could be a very long (fire) season.”

Firefighters in Stevens County Fire District 1 also responded to a brush fire on Bluebird Way in the Suncrest area Saturday, though it was only about 2 acres in size. The district also responded to a small brush fire about two weeks ago, which caught firefighters by surprise.

“This is the earliest anyone can recall,” the district posted on its Facebook page after the first fire.

The lack of snowfall in Washington and Oregon means much drier ground in the coming months.

In many parts of Oregon and Washington, the snowpack is just ten to twenty percent of the average. It’s not that precipitation is low, it’s just that it has fallen as rain rather than snow.

John Saltenberger is with the Interagency Coordination center in Portland. He says the low snowpack means fire season could come early. Normally, firefighters are brought on in June, in anticipation of fires starting in July or August.

“If the dryness that we’re seeing now continues I fully anticipate we’re going to see staffing up a few weeks earlier than usual,” he says.

The situation has grown so dire in Oregon that the state could lose its wildfire insurance coverage.

(Doug Decker with the Oregon Department of Forestry) said Oregon spent about $200 million fighting wildfires over the last two years. Part of the high cost was offset by $50 million the state was able to claim from its insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London.

“We’ve had to go through the insurance policy, we’ve had to talk to FEMA,” Decker said. “Had to go back to the legislature and ask for more money from the general fund.”

Due to the catastrophic fire seasons Oregon has faced, the insurance company has lost more money than it has made from its policy with the state. Now, with low snowpack in play, state officials and lawmakers wonder if Lloyd’s will renew.

“Without that fire insurance, either the money, the cost of fighting the fire will come largely from the taxpayer or there won’t be as sufficient funds to address those fires,” Klamath Falls Senator Doug Whitsett told KOIN 6 News.