An abnormally dry spring has heralded an early start to what could be a prolonged fire season in 2021.
Forestry educators at Washington State University urge forest owners and residents to prepare.
“Fire season is already underway,” said Sean Alexander, WSU Extension’s Northeast Washington Forester. “We’ve already seen hundreds of acres burn, and we are in no way, shape, or form in a good situation.”
As of mid-May, 86% of Washington is abnormally dry, with more than 40% of the state in drought. While snowpack levels are high across most of Washington, that moisture is a double-edged sword, driving underbrush growth that eventually dries into fuel.
“Lowland forests are in trouble—it’s really dry in the lowlands,” said Andy Perleberg, WSU Extension Forestry team leader. “We’re going to see an earlier, longer fire season.”
Drought, wind, and a spark
Last year, more than 840,000 acres burned in Washington, above twice the 10-year average.
“Fires have increased in both size and frequency in our state,” Perleberg said. “Over the last decade, the size of burned area in our state has increased four-fold.”
Last Labor Day weekend, the Babb Fire destroyed 80% of homes in the small Whitman County town of Malden. A few days later, a super-plume of smoke from fires in southern, central, and northern Oregon settled over Washington, where, for five days, air quality monitors statewide recorded pollution levels above the 24-hour health standard. Fire suppression cost more than $110 million in 2019, the most recent year with available data.
Compounding drought are historic changes in Northwest forests. While this region hosts a range of forest landscapes, dry and lower-elevation Douglas fir and ponderosa pine forests east of the Cascades once burned every five to 15 years, in part due to the influence of Native Americans.
Since the era of effective fire suppression began around 1950, “we’ve seen a lot of trees grow into formerly open spaces,” said Mark Swanson, Forestry Program lead with WSU’s School of the Environment. “We have denser, more moisture-stressed stands that are going to burn at higher severity, where once they would have experienced low-severity, ground fires. These are the parts of our forest that would have burned frequently, keeping fuel low so that fire wouldn’t have jumped from crown to crown.”
For fire to start, timber, grasses, and other fuel must be dry. Green wood won’t burn, but given time, warm temperatures, and low relative humidity, all that’s needed is a spark, and wind to spread the blaze.
“Most wildland fires happen in grasslands and range, and are typically very manageable,” Alexander said. Fine fuels burn quick but fast, and usually stop when they hit a barrier.
“The fires we see on the news, that cause our smoked-out September skies, get bad because they get into timber, where there is hundreds of times more fuel,” he said. “They burn hot and put off a lot of smoke, as well as embers,” which can fly on updrafts for miles.
Once flames climb into the forest’s upper canopy, they can create intense, running crown fires that sweep through entire stands and endanger lives, homes, and property.
Educating for risk and realities
For more than 20 years, WSU Extension Foresters have been teaching fire realities to Washington forest owners.
Over the last decade, more than 38,000 people, representing more than 1.5 million acres of land, have taken part in WSU Extension forestry education. Perleberg calculates that their efforts have been worth more than $239 million in benefits from stewardship and safety, with more than 450,000 acres managed for better fire resistance.
“I want landowners to know that we’re here to help,” Perleberg said. “Forest owners contribute to fresh air, clean water, wildlife, scenic beauty, forest products, and fire safety. Those are public benefits, and we can help them learn, connect to resources, and protect those values.”
Visit the WSU Extension Forestry website for more informational resources and online courses.