Add a dire wildfire forecast to the long list of harrowing news 2020 has brought. The National Interagency Fire Center predicts an above-normal fire potential for all of Eastern Washington by August, and COVID-19 has sapped the available help to combat the flames.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources expects that about 20% of a normal year’s firefighting force will be unavailable to help with this year’s expected summer wildfires. The season has gotten off to an early start. Already, DNR reports 263 wildfires statewide between the start of 2020 and May 12, which is 160 more than during an average year. Burn piles set off 140 of this year’s fires. People with increased time for landscaping during stay-home orders must remain mindful of fire risk and set debris fires cautiously, if at all, during dry weeks.
This year’s fire season calls for extra caution because many of the National Guard troops and emergency responders who would ordinarily join professional firefighters for seasonal support are instead essential to tamp down coronavirus in communities across America. And those who are available will have to change their fire-zone strategies drastically to maintain social distancing.
The sprawling camps where hundreds of firefighters live and eat in tents together on the front lines have been identified as potential hotbeds for coronavirus. To limit the contagion, this season’s firefighting will have to rely more on smaller campsites and more use of helicopters and airplanes.
Federal COVID-19 relief legislation should be extended to provide stronger resources to western states’ fight against wildfires without further delay. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz in April requested $86.6 million in new federal funding for forest thinning, response capacity — including aviation — and personal protective equipment for firefighters. No federal action has been taken on the request. Western U.S. senators, including Washington’s Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, must continue their efforts to press the U.S. Forest Service for stronger action before too much time passes to help with this year’s predicted fires.
Washington residents should also heed both the weather forecast and diminished resources. This means working more carefully when outside.
Franz advocates keeping a clear perimeter around the state’s 2.2 million homes in wildfire-prone ares, which is a good place to start. Families should also plan now for how to endure prolonged smoky skies as the weather warms. The state Department of Health’s advice from previous fire seasons to pick up N95 masks for trips during wildfires likely won’t be possible for much of 2020. Community centers, gyms and other public facilities offering indoor respite may remain closed or reopen with limited capacities.
COVID-19 has tested resiliency like nothing in memory. Wildfires are predicted to increase the burden for much of Washington. One of this era’s great lessons will be the power of preparation, for government officials and private citizens alike. Wise actions today can limit tomorrow’s disasters.