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Drier conditions than normal in Washington spell trouble for wildfire season

With extreme heat on the way, the National Weather Service is sounding the alarm about this year's wildfire season.

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE, Wash. — With extreme heat on the way, the National Weather Service (NWS) is sounding the alarm about this year's wildfire season. 

“We may be on the precipice of another major season again,” said NWS meteorologists in Seattle Tuesday as they looked into the risk factors for Washington state's wildfire season.

Washington state saw more than 813,000 acres burn in 2020, and that wasn’t even the highest yearly total in the past decade. Yet, it fits with the upward trend in wildfire starts and acres burned. That amount, 813,000 acres, would be 15 times the area covered by the city of Seattle.

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The graphics-intensive briefing Tuesday included the current drought status for the state. The image shows while much of the eastern half of Washington is in drought, even what’s considered extreme drought, much of the west side of the state is considered unusually dry. And based on climate models, there’s little expectation that the state will shift into a wet pattern.

Credit: NOAA
The current drought status in Washington state

As dry as it may be in Washington, the state is far better off than the rest of the West Coast

Washington still has a substantial snowpack that hasn't yet flowed downriver. The snowpack will help maintain groundwater along rivers that continue to flow, but some states already have nothing left.

Credit: NOAA
The drought outlook for the West Coast

But fire risk is just one reality of fire season, the other is smoke, even smoke driven by fires in other parts of the west. That was true for a stretch of September 2020 as smoke from California and Oregon fires came to western Washington. 

Yet, meteorologists said the smoke is a lot like snowfall that sticks in the west side of the state, you may get a storm or two in the winter, but less than a half-decade ago, smoke events that covered the west side of the state were virtually unheard of.

Health officials with the Washington State Department of Health said earlier this week they are warning people to be prepared for wildfire smoke this season.

Credit: NOAA
Wildland fire potential in Washington state