SULTAN — The Snohomish Basin is likely safe from drought this summer, with snowpack levels right at or above normal for this time of year.
But a lack of drought doesn’t mean lower wildfire risk. The National Interagency Fire Center predicts a severe wildfire season for Washington this summer, which worries public officials as federal resources are stretched thin fighting COVID-19.
Snohomish County snowpack levels are above what’s expected this time of year, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Other areas in Puget Sound hover just below normal.
“Where we’re looking this year is pretty good actually,” said Scott Pattee, a water specialist with the Department of Agriculture
It’s a reversal from numbers earlier this year, which were just 36% of normal in local water basins.
Based on a 30-year median, the Skykomish River Basin was 108% of normal in May.
The Snoqualmie River is at 89% of normal, while the Tolt River is 132% of normal. The state doesn’t take data on the Stillaguamish River.
That’s all the snowpack we’ll get for this year.
It peaks just after the first of April, then starts to decrease fairly dramatically, Everett City Engineer Jim Miller said.
By May, the snowpack was a third of what it was in early April, which is normal decline.
The Sultan River Basin, part of which feeds Snohomish County’s Spada Lake reservoir, does not have its own snowpack monitor. Its levels are estimated by monitors to the north, east and west, and it’s considered part of the broader central Puget Sound water system.
Spada Lake, which is used for water supply and power generation, is slightly above its average level for this time of year, Miller said.
“The forecast is we’ve got plenty of water through the summer and on through the end of the year,” he said.
Good snowpack and plenty of water may sound like good news headed into wildfire season.
But Pattee said runoff from snowpack means growth for surrounding forests, which is a potential fire hazard.
“Especially if we have a warm, dry summer,” he said.
Snowpack has little to do with fire predictions, said Eric Andrews, Northwest Region coordinator for the state Fire Defense Committee. But it has a lot to do with firefighters’ ability to get water out in rural areas.
Humidity and wind are the biggest environmental factors in a fire’s severity, Andrews said.
Wildfire season is off to a vicious start this year, with 302 wildfires burning across the state so far, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Hilary Franz said. The average for this time of year is 105.
The National Interagency Fire Center’s predictions include hotspots in typically wetter Snohomish County, Andrews said.
“We are in the bullseye of what is likely to be a very challenging fire season,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell said in a legislative hearing Tuesday.
No wildfires have impacted Snohomish County so far this year, DNR spokesperson Janet Pearce said.
On average, the county sees about 14 wildfires per year, according to the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management. In the last 40 years, two have burned more than 100 acres.
Most recently, the 2016 Proctor Creek Fire near Gold Bar scorched 289 acres.
So far in 2020, about 25% of wildfires have been on the west side of the state, and 90% were human-caused.
Washington had relatively few wildfires last year, which means there’s a great risk this summer.
“We expect then to see ever more significant fires because we have so much fuel on the ground where it was not burned off the year before,” Franz said.
The worst wildfire season on record was 2018, with more than 1,850 fires in Washington throughout the year.
Franz and other state officials are worried the state won’t have enough resources to fight wildfires this summer.
The National Guard and other federal emergency response teams normally called upon to fight fires have already been deployed for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are expecting we will not be able to have the same level of resources from our federal agencies and partners that we have had in the past that has helped us get through our fire season,” Franz said.
Social distancing protocol has also limited the department’s ability to train new seasonal firefighters.
“The pandemic will change how we fight wildfires,” department forester George Geissler said.
Typically, firefighters come from across the region and from federal, state and local agencies. They eat, sleep and fight wildfires in close quarters and in smoky conditions.
“We’re used to having to lean on other states and even other nations for support and vice versa, us sharing those,” Franz said. “What we’re not used to is every one of those states and those countries also dealing with the pandemic.”
Geissler said the department predicts anywhere from 17% to 22% of firefighters will be taken out of service by travel restrictions or by isolation and quarantine requirements.
These limitations may mean it takes up to 25% longer to fight a wildfire, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a Thursday press conference.
Locally, Andrews said he believes fire districts in Snohomish County will be able to respond with the same amount of resources they have in previous years.
But the county’s capacity to send help to drier parts of the state will be down about 25%.
“I can’t send out the same amount of resources I normally could in the past,” he said.
In May, the state DNR revealed a new strategy to help its 10 helicopters fight fires in places where it’s difficult for pilots to find water.
Water tanks called “pumpkins,” which hold 3,300 gallons of water, will be strategically placed to reduce the travel time necessary to refill helicopters’ water reservoirs.
“Never have we ever had to think about how we fight fires with limited resources in the context of a global pandemic,” Franz said. “There is no manual written on how to keep your firefighters safe within the context of this pandemic.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.