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Increasing number of western Washington wildfires a worrying trend amid stressed forests

Washington wildfires are starting earlier in the year and with higher frequency. State officials hope to help forests regain their health before it's too late.

Washington’s wildfire season is like waiting for a bomb to go off. 

Typically, the most dangerous months of the season – August and September – arrive after California, Oregon and most other western states had been burning for months. Now, two shifts are happening: more Washington fires are starting earlier in the summer, and the number of fires is going up in western Washington, which is the cooler and moister side of the state.

“We’ve already seen 40% of our fires in two of the last three years west of the Cascades,” said Hilary Franz, Washington’s public lands commissioner. “When you look at our neighboring states of Oregon and California, the problem is even more significant, and we know it’s going to come quicker and harder here.”

Franz leads the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), an agency with a broad portfolio of missions ranging from the state’s efforts to research and warn of geological risks from earthquakes to protecting aquatic lands. Many people may be unaware that it is also the largest fire department in the state responsible for protecting 13 million acres of state-owned and private land from wildfires.

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That new reality hit home in 2020 on Labor Day weekend when strong winds out of the east brought fire to the people of Bonney Lake and Sumner in Pierce County. The two cities protected by East Pierce Fire and Rescue are not isolated rural towns but part of the growing Tacoma-Seattle metro area.

"I think it’s an eye-opener,” said Jon Parkinson, fire chief for East Pierce Fire and Rescue. “Sumner Grade showed us, a lot of us, something we didn’t think would happen. It opened our eyes that the west side of Washington is not immune to large-scale wildfire. That Labor Day weekend, it was a combination of a few things. We had low humidity, so that put us into red flag warnings – high fire danger. We had temperatures in the low 90s, and over that week, we started to get east winds that really turned into strong east winds.”

Parkinson spoke in front of one of two homes destroyed by the Sumner Grade Fire. The chief said it came close to being much, much worse.

“We could have easily lost half the houses in the neighborhood,” said Parkinson, as he pointed to the wider neighborhood.

He estimated another 30 homes could have been lost had additional helicopters from the Washington National Guard and engines from other fire agencies not showed up in the nick of time. These were resources his department had already been warned were not likely to be available as the eastern side of the state was seeing massive fires, and firefighters and equipment had already been assigned east of the mountains.

“It was almost like a scene out of a movie,” explained Parkinson. “At just the right moment, a new engine would show up just as this fire was creeping toward the house. Just as fire was creeping toward another house, a helicopter would fly over, and you’d see them dump a buck of water on top of a house.”

In one scene, Parkinson described one of his department’s trucks with a rotating nozzle on the top sitting in the middle of a cul-de-sac wetting down homes in a circular pattern like a lawn sprinkler.

Like a growing number of fire departments on the west side, East Pierce now has firefighters cross-trained in dealing with wildland fires as well as structures. The department has two brush trucks, which are smaller trucks with four-wheel drive that are equipped to tackle the landscape to get at fires off-road.

More and more of these departments across the state are training together and with DNR to fight wildland fires.

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It would be one thing if the Sumner Grade fire was a one-off. It wasn’t.

The cause was a wind-snapped power line that sparked dry brush just after midnight on Tuesday morning, minutes after the holiday weekend came to its official close. Over the whole county, Parkinson said there had been 70 fires that weekend. Six were fought by his department, including one that burned four mobile homes. Another fire in Graham burned even more homes. And the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Southwest Washington saw 20,000 acres of forest land burn.

More and more people are living in forested areas, particularly on the west side of the state.

“What you’re seeing is a lot more exposure of people into forests that are drying out,” said George Geissler, Washington’s chief forester.

That interweaving of neighborhood and forest is referred to in the business of fighting fires as the urban-wildland interface. Not only that, but Geissler’s concern is that the health of Washington’s forests continue to deteriorate.

“That combination is what is really increasing the fire threat on the west side of the state,” he said. “So, while we may look at doing forest health treatments on the western side, we may also be looking much more heavily on how we’re involved in our communities, how we’re involved in community resilience, how we get our prevention massages done, and how it’s done effectively so that people are aware of the changing conditions around them.”

Washington calls itself the Evergreen State, with more than half of its 43 million acres covered by trees. Yet, the forests on the west side from the crest of the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and on the east side from the crest of the mountains to the Idaho state line are very different. The state is divided by weather, the types of dominant tree species, dramatically different wildfire frequency and how big fires play out.

“We have a huge job in front of us just in central and eastern Washington,” said Franz. “And we’re also watching western Washington struggling.”

Franz got strong bipartisan backing from the state Legislature early in 2021 to provide an additional $125 million every two-year budget cycle for more firefighters and firefighting equipment and to do more to improve the health of the forests. Many of those forests are so overgrown that trees like ponderosa pine on the east side, which survived centuries of low-intensity natural fires, are now being killed by fires that are higher intensity. On the west side, many forests are extremely dense, with too many smaller trees per acre.

Add the increased pressure from climate change that is doing more to dry forests out and increase threats from insects and tree diseases.

“The trees themselves are just not healthy,” said Geissler. “They’re more susceptible to insects and disease, fire, anything, the climate – anything that’s being thrown at them.”

He said it’s a lot like when humans catch a cold; it’s more likely to happen when we’re tired and under stress.

A big part of the solution, said Franz and Geissler, is prescribed burning on the east side of the state. Low-intensity fires set in the spring burn out low-level brush and small trees without harming the larger trees. Without it, in a summer wildfire, low-level vegetation becomes the first rungs on a ladder fueling a pathway for larger fires to climb into the tops or crowns of the big trees killing them. Even ponderosa pines that have stood for centuries and survived routine, natural, low-intensity fires are dying in today’s fires.

Mechanical removal, which is physically extracting the same low-level brush, is another form of treatment, but more expensive.

“We set a goal of one and a quarter million acres that we will treat over the next 20 years,” said Franz. “Treating 70,000 acres a year for 20 years is doable, especially with funding from the Legislature.”

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But Franz said the pressure is on to do more, and more of that pressure is coming on the west side of the state.

“We’ve got to scale it up faster,” said Franz. “When I came to this position, we had one person in forest health at the Department of Natural Resources. There’s no way one person is going to be able to get to the scale we’re talking about.”

Franz said for her agency, dealing with wildfire is no longer a seasonal business. 

“We now have 100 new firefighters coming in that when they’re not fighting fires, they’re doing forest health treatment,” said Franz. “When they’re not fighting fires, they’re out making these forests more resilient.