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California serves as warning for future of Western Washington wildfires, expert says

The new chief forester for the Washington Department of Natural Resources says it's only a matter of time before Western Washington experiences the type of extreme wildfires seen in California.

This is the second year in a row for devastating wildfires in California. The 2018 wildfire season set a record for acres burned, and lives lost.

Like in California, the size of wildfires is growing in Washington. In the 20th century, there were five so-called “megafires,” which are wildfires 100,000 acres in size or larger. That including the Yacolt Burn which stood as the largest historic wildfire in the state until 2014.

So far in the 21st century, there have been nine megafires, including a new record set in 2014, which fell to the latest record set a year later in 2015. That’s nearly double the number of big fires in less than one-fifth of the time.

Also see | The fight to stop megafires in Washington

While those new records were in central Washington, the Yacolt burn happened in the wetter, west side of the state.

“California is really just kind of a canary in the coal mine,” said George Geissler, Washington state’s new chief forester for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The DNR is the state’s largest firefighting agency.

Next month the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group is expected to join with other organizations to present a workshop looking at the threat of growing wildfires, specifically in Western Washington as climate change makes the west warmer and drier.

“I have to tell you, a lot of people are thinking about it,” said Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

City and county governments, tribes, emergency management agencies, and utilities are among those expected to attend the workshop.

“When we think about wildfire, it’s pretty overwhelming, and it’s also hard to think what might happen in Western Washington,” said Snover. “We think about our big, wet, rich forests as not burning very often in Western Washington. We know they’ve burned historically and there have been some really big fires. And we know that climate change is likely to make that more frequent.”

Also see | Wildfires burning longer, spreading faster in Western US

The number of fires is growing on the west side of the state. Changes in DNR strategy to fight fires faster has kept the vast majority of them under ten acres statewide. But Geissler says his agency is pushing to be even more aggressive on the fire front, especially when it comes to preventing them and cutting their potential. Prescribed burning and other forest treatments can reduce decades of fuel built up in the forest following many decades of fire suppression.

Also see | More prescribed burns could prevent Washington megafires

“The type of work we’re doing is looking to mitigate those risks, whether it’s working within the forest, whether it’s working with more communities to make them more fire aware and prepared for wildfire,” said Geissler.

A 20-year plan to deal with fires on the east side of the state is already in place.