Washington wildfire season is off to a blistering start


The forest fire season in Washington has got off to such a terrible, destructive start that even a rain forest is burning. Before July had even begun, the Sleepy Hollow fire burned down 29 homes near Wenatchee. Several other wildfires still burn across Central and Eastern Washington, scorching hundreds of acres of forests.

The Los Angeles Times commented that the spate of wildfires so early in the summer is making Washington look like perpetually dry Southern California.

The flames sent a terrifying message: Normally soggy Washington — nicknamed the Evergreen State for good reason and home to the wettest town in the Lower 48 — has never been hotter or drier at this point in the year, officials say, and the fire season has never begun so early or so fiercely.

“It’s more reminiscent of Southern California and the brush fires fed by the Santa Ana winds,” said Peter Goldmark, head of the state Department of Natural Resources. “Now it’s up here in the state of Washington, where this kind of behavior is unseen. It’s heralding a radical change in the kinds of fires we’re going to see.”

The 1,200-acre fire in the Olympic National Park’s Queets rain forest proves that Western Washington is no longer immune from large fires either.

This year, even the Queets rain forest, a place that typically receives more than 200 inches of rain annually, is burning.

The fire started after a warm winter prevented most of the snowpack from forming, followed by an exceedingly hot, dry spring that primed the forest for ignition. The result of this unusual alignment is what now ranks as the largest fire since the park was established, and might burn through the summer.

…The fire is a reminder that even these ancient forests in one of the wettest places in North America have a burn cycle, although it’s measured in hundreds of years.

The worry is so great that in King County (Seattle and its suburbs), officials are now asking residents to perform the same brush-clearing and other fire prevention measures asked of forest homeowners in fire-prone Eastern Washington.

Wildfires are a perennial concern is Central and Eastern Washington. But a number of things usually work in Western Washington’s favor, according to (Lauren Vane of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks) – climate, topography, and an abundance of firefighting resources mean that wildfires typically are well-controlled.

“In a year like this year, the concern is that may not be enough, that with windy conditions, extremely dry vegetation, and very dry air, we could have a situation where a fire gets out of hand,” she said.

Already, the Seattle area has had its driest May-June period ever. Federal meteorologists say there has been no widespread rainfall since early April, and the forecast into fall is drier and hotter than average.

As we noted in April, Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark asked the Legislature for more money to fight wildfires, but he recently told the Los Angeles Times that his department could still use more resources.

Goldmark, the head of the Department of Natural Resources, says he fears the summer ahead. He said he had asked the state Legislature for $4.5 million for fire engines, staff, helicopters and training “so we can be better prepared for this kind of wildfire season, which is much more intense and commonplace.”

The Legislature budgeted $1.2 million, he said.

“I’m very short-handed in terms of staff and equipment to meet the current threat,” Goldmark said. “I’ve got a whole state to protect, a big one and a very fire-prone one, with tremendous amounts of fuel, and population that’s located close to the fuel. It’s not a good mix.”

Nationally, the wildfire season has also been bad this year, and that’s in no small part because of the lack of active management of our federal forests. The U.S. House is currently considering a bill that would increase active management and help protect federal forests from wildfire by improving forest health. The Resilient Federal Forests Act could be up for a House vote as early as this week.

House Republicans say that legislation expected to see a vote this week simply makes sense. It would combat cost overruns by allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to dole out funds when the Forest Service exhausts its fire budget. The legislation would also speed up efforts to pare back forest growth and clear out debris—provisions that defenders say are crucial to stave off the worst wildfires.

“We’re using sound science to manage the forests,” Arkansas GOP Rep. Bruce Westerman, the sponsor of the bill, said in an interview Tuesday. “I see a lot of wins. This would be good for forest health, it will make our forests more resilient and it will get them to where they can withstand wildfires and not have catastrophic events.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Colo., the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, argued in a USA Today op-ed this week that Congress has to act to save the nation’s forests. Federal leaders have to focus on timber reform instead of letting lawsuits from environmental groups rule forest policy, Bishop wrote.

From the 1950’s through the 1990’s, the average amount of timber harvested from national forests average 10 to more than 12 billion board feet. From the 1990s, there was a dramatic decline. Last year, only 2.9 billion board feet were harvested. Much more is needed to restore fire-resiliency to our national forests and protect the millions of Americans that live near them.

…The danger of doing nothing is too high. The analysis paralysis brought by litigation and bureaucratic red tape is unacceptable. Some may think the destruction is only out in remote areas, but increasingly, suburban and urban dwellers have been victims of wildfire wrath. In 2012, northwest of Colorado Springs, the Waldo Canyon fire consumed the homes of more than 346 families out of the more than 32,000 people who were evacuated.

This could have been prevented. We can mitigate catastrophic wildfires while protecting local economies and securing the environment. In order to do so, Congress must seek out the best thinking on forest policy of the past few years. The current regulatory framework empowers interest group lawyers at the expense of both the environment and people must be shattered.

If leaders in Washington fail to change this culture of fear caused by litigation, millions more acres – and Americans homes – will be burned to the ground.