An aerial tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfire burning near Twisp, in August, 2015. Three firefighters were killed battling the blaze. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

An aerial tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfire burning near Twisp, in August, 2015. Three firefighters were killed battling the blaze. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: We are the first line of defense against wildfires

With record highs and drying vegetation, great care is needed heading into wildfire season.

By The Herald Editorial Board

This, unfortunately, may be the calm before the firestorm.

As of Friday afternoon, there were no major wildfires burning in Washington state, according to Northwest Interagency Coordination Center; no bright-red flame icons showed against the cool green of the state map.

But other maps and reports were less comforting about the prospects for the coming months’ wildfire season in Washington state and the West in general. Colors on a state Department of Natural Resource showed yellow for the preparedness level for the DNR, the state’s largest firefighting agency. And the DNR’s map for the Northwest showed a range of red hues for heat warnings in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Nearly all of Washington and Oregon are under either excessive heat warnings or watches through the weekend.

Record high temperatures were expected this weekend and into early next week, according to the National Weather Service, with highs in Snohomish County forecast in the 90s and even into the 100s for some areas of the Cascade range. Increased wildfire danger was feared because of the expected lengthy spell of warm, dry weather and increased number of people lighting recreational fires.

In response to those dangers, the Snohomish County Fire Marshal announced a countywide burn ban that went into effect Friday morning.

“We urge the public to use great caution before lighting any recreational fires since wildfires are a significant risk across the region,” Fire Marshal Michael McCrary said in a news release. “If you have any doubts about safety, please don’t burn.”

And while no fires were reported burning in the state, that doesn’t mean DNR fire crews haven’t already seen action this year. A running tally sheet of fires in the state shows 775 responses by state fire crews as of June 21, 496 of them on DNR-protected land. Already, those 496 fires outpace the number of fires seen by the same dates in 2020 (326) and 2015 (298). Both years lead the list of the state’s worst fire season losses; 2015, with a total loss of 1.1 million acres and the lives of three firefighters; and 2020, with a loss of 812,000 acres and the death of an infant, whose parents were trapped by a wildfire.

The blame for a lengthening wildfire season and the increasing annual losses to catastrophic fires can be attributed to two causes, both of them man-made: Climate change in the Northwest is resulting in warmer temperatures and reduced snowpack in mountain ranges; and past firefighting practices, which emphasized putting out all fires, failed to recognize fire’s role in healthy ecosystems.

At a state and national level, we’re now seeing a shift in direction that addresses both issues.

One particular investment by the state Legislature this year is worth noting — again — not just for its increased funding for the DNR’s firefighting response but also regarding efforts to prevent wildfires and improve the health and resilience of forests and wildlands. The state, at the urging of the DNR’s chief, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, budgeted an additional $125 million over the next two years toward those purposes and committed to spending $328 million by 2027, Investigate West and Crosscut reported in April.

Of the most immediate funding:

$70.8 million has gone to bolster the DNR’s firefighting crews, adding 100 firefighters and purchasing bulldozers and other new firefighting equipment and upgrading older aircraft, including two Vietnam-era Huey helicopters to monitor and fight fires at night.

$24.5 million will be spent on restoring forests prone to fires, clearing brush and fallen trees and using proscribed burns to restore fire as a natural tool for controlling underbrush. Likewise, private forestland owners are being helped to make their lands more resilient.

$19.6 million will aid homeowners, in particular the estimated 2.2 million residences in Washington state in close proximity to wildlands, to make their properties less prone to fire and easier for firefighters to defend.

Other than the boost to firefighting resources, the dividends from those investments will take some time to be realized.

“It’s taken us 50 years to get into this crisis, and it’s going to take a while for us to get out,” Franz told The Herald in March.

That leaves more immediate action in our own hands. This week’s hot, dry weather is likely to ease, but we are in for a string of sunny days and drier conditions; conditions that we can’t ignore as we approach the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

The pandemic put a lid on celebrations last year at this time, and as we ditch masks and inhibitions this year, we must still exercise caution as we mark the holiday, especially while in parks and other public lands. That means a particularly close eye on all fires, where they are allowed. And unfailing care with fireworks. It’s best to leave the pyrotechnic displays to professionals, but those lighting their own should take all precautions, have a source of water or a fire extinguisher on hand and stay well clear of anything that could catch fire, whether that belongs to themselves or their neighbors.

“Hotter and drier weather conditions leave us more vulnerable to fast-spreading fires,” Franz said in a recent release. “I’m urging Washingtonians this weekend to avoid activities that could accidentally spark a wildfire, especially outdoor fires. It could prove disastrous.”

Only you …

The state Department of Natural Resources offers these tips to stay safe and reduce the chance of fires during this wildfire season:

Pay attention to burn ban restrictions and keep an eye on any burn piles.

If you’re in an area where campfires are permitted, make sure you’ve doused, stirred and doused your fire again until it is cool to the touch before heading home.

Make sure dirt bikes and ATVs have operating spark arrestors.

Prepare for wildfire by creating defensible space around your home: Reduce dry fuels, clean roof tops and gutters and limb trees and remove dead branches.

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