SPOKANE — After two consecutive years in which wildfires set acreage records in Washington state, this fire season has been very light. In fact, wildfires have been smaller and less destructive in Washington, Oregon and Idaho this year thanks to a heavy winter snowpack and some rain in the spring and summer months.
Firefighters are cautiously optimistic the fire season might be drawing to an early close as fall approaches.
“When you get into fall weather, temperatures are cooler and the humidity goes up, especially at night,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “That tends to help bring the fire season to a close.”
As of Aug. 31, 432,129 acres had burned this season in the three Northwestern states, Gardetto said. At the same date last year, 743,882 acres had burned, Gardetto said.
By the time fire season ended last year, on Sept. 30, more than 1.1 million acres had burned, she said.
“We’re actually having a ‘normal’ fire season,” Gardetto said. “Normal means that we’re still having fires, but they’re not as large, there aren’t as many, fire behavior is not as extreme.”
That’s in sharp contrast to Southern California, where the fire season has been very active, she said.
The difference was most pronounced in Washington, where the past two fire seasons consumed hundreds of thousands of acres, burned hundreds of homes and led to the deaths of three wildland firefighters.
By contrast, this year the most destructive fires broke out in one day around the city of Spokane, and burned about 20 homes before they were brought under control. Most of the state has seen only small fires.
“Comparing to the last two fire seasons, this year has been a little less chaotic,” said Janet Pearce, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
In addition to favorable weather, the state of Washington this year was able to call on more firefighters, more fire engines and more retardant-dropping planes than in past years, Pearce said.
“We were fortunate to not have our resources stretched to the max,” she said.
The numbers in Washington are stark. By Aug. 30, 2014, Department of Natural Resources firefighters had responded to 687 fires covering 191,000 acres. Last year by Aug. 30, they had responded to 996 fires covering 328,000 acres, Pearce said.
This year on Aug. 30, they had responded to 637 fires, but only covering 15,000 acres, Pearce said.
A big reason is this past winter’s heavy snowfall, Gardetto said.
“We got a significant snowpack this past year, which helped with the fire season in the Northwest,” she said.
Rain in the spring and early summer also pushed back the typical start of fire season, she said.
The light fire season means that the U.S. Forest Service did not have to raid its fire prevention budget to battle wildfires, as they often have in the past, Gardetto said. That leaves more money for fire prevention work, she said.
Gardetto warned that one light fire season does not make a trend.
“Just one year of a good snow doesn’t make up for the drought of recent years,” she said.