Western WA predicted to see above-normal fire risk this summer

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Western Washington is entering this fire season dry, with chances of wildfire expected to build heading into the hottest months of the year, according to the most recent predictions.

Wildfire risk will be normal through June for the state as a whole, then most of Western Washington in July and August will see an above-normal fire risk, according to the National Interagency Fire Center’s May wildfire outlook. The rest of the state is predicted to face normal conditions.

The fire center hasn’t predicted conditions beyond August, but an expected climatic switch to La Niña weather patterns, which feature cooler and wetter conditions, could bring some relief.

Wildfire risk across the Western U.S. has risen as summers grow hotter, drier and longer, contributing to larger and more intense fires. Last year, two fires in Spokane County consumed hundreds of homes, burned thousands of acres and killed two people.

The national wildfire outlook, issued monthly during wildfire season, gives communities and officials a glimpse at potential risks. But the outlooks cannot predict where fires will break out or how big they might get.

This year’s outlook is better than in 2023, when the whole state faced above-normal wildfire risk from July onward, prompting officials to warn that Washington could have one of the worst wildfire seasons in the nation.

“We’ve had some really extreme seasons in the last 10 years,” said fire meteorologist Matt Dehr with the state Department of Natural Resources. “I don’t see the indicators that this year is going to be one of those super extreme seasons.”

Dry conditions, including low snowpack, below-average precipitation and a statewide drought emergency, are driving the higher risk in the North and Central Cascades and on the Olympic Peninsula, Dehr said.

The snowpack serves as a “proxy” for precipitation, he said, and a low snowpack exposes fuels quicker, allows soil to start drying out earlier and means lower stream flows and water availability lower in elevation.

The outlook reflects the trend of Western Washington seeing increasing wildfire risk and more wildfires in general as the region has become “warmer and drier since the turn of the century,” Dehr said.

These increasing risks have remade life for Washington residents as utilities and government agencies take new steps to prevent devastating fires. This year, Puget Sound Energy said it may turn off electricity for the first time to prevent lines from sparking on the most dangerous days.

DNR also intends to burn up to 2,580 acres in Central and Eastern Washington to prevent severe wildfires later.

Eastern Washington will still have a high likelihood for fire, which is typical, Dehr said. The “above-normal” rating for northwest Washington reflects the fact that the region historically has had very low or nearly nonexistent fire danger.

“It’s just that a normal risk in the Olympics normally means no fires,” he said.

This recent winter, Seattle had its warmest December on record, and the winter’s lackluster snowpack is partially credited to El Niño, a warm, dry weather pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean that influences weather globally.

But that’s changing now and the tropical Pacific is likely in a “neutral” position now and likely to stay that way through July, before a La Niña winter arrives, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate prediction center. La Niña is the flipside of El Niño and generally makes for a colder and wetter winter.

That transition could affect wildfire this summer, state climatologist Nick Bond said, though NOAA currently predicts a 69% chance of the switch to La Niña between July and September.

That possible earlier-than-expected shift is part of the reason Dehr said he thinks this fire season may end up around average, despite a small snowpack and a dry spring.

“The effects of having more cloud cover or moisture in the air really mitigates how quickly the fuels can dry out,” he said.

There are competing factors and models influencing wildfire predictions, Bond said, noting that “east wind events” that arrive later in the season are impossible to predict now. East wind events (known as the Santa Ana or Diablo winds in California) occur when wind directions shift, resulting in hot, easterly, dry air whipping over Western Washington, sometimes fanning fires.

These extreme weather events can easily push the state from normal risk to extreme, Dehr said.

As for whether smoke will blanket Seattle and neighboring cities, there’s good news and bad news, he said. California and Oregon do not look like they’ll have bad fire seasons. But if the Cascades see even one large fire, smoke could easily blow into Seattle, as it did during the Bolt Creek Fire of 2022.

Fires in Idaho, western Montana and southern British Columbia could also contribute to smoky conditions, but that would also have to be paired with certain wind conditions, Dehr said.

To prepare for bad air quality, officials recommend people have N95 masks on hand and air purification or filtration methods. These can include portable electric air cleaners or even a MERV 13 filter taped to a box fan.

Washington had its second- and third-worst fire seasons in 2021 and 2022. Last year’s fire season ended with 1,707 fires, the third-highest number of ignitions in the state’s history, but 151,000 acres burned, below the state’s 10-year average of 467,000 acres burned.

Though last year’s fire season saw fewer acres burned than expected, Dehr said there were still “catastrophic impacts,” especially from the Gray and Oregon Road fires, which tore through Medical Lake and Elk in Spokane County. Two residents died, thousands were evacuated and more than 360 primary homes were destroyed in the fires, which eventually led to a major disaster declaration

In hopes of keeping homes from catching fire, DNR has pushed to expand its free wildfire home assessment program in Western Washington this year. The program sends a trained assessor to homes to examine landscaping and other features to create a plan to prevent wildfire.

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