Nationwide, wildfires are growing larger and becoming more volatile. Why experts say that’s happening and what they predict this season.

Share story

Hundreds of acres already have burned in the Northwest.

A helicopter crash started the Hungry Hill fire in the Colville National Forest in May. Early this month, lightning sparked the Thunder Creek fire in the North Cascades.

This week, a fire sprang up in the Olympic National Forest and quickly ballooned to more than 375 acres, shutting down a nearby trail. A Northern California wildland fire crew arrived Wednesday to develop a management strategy for the fire.

On Thursday, firefighters controlled a fast-moving, 145-acre fire west of Spokane.

Experts say fires nationwide are growing larger and becoming more volatile, more people are living in fire-prone areas and the cost of suppressing fires continues to rise.

If predictions bear out, dry conditions and summer storms could set Washington ablaze, something scientists expect to be a familiar problem with few easy answers in coming years.

How bad will this fire season be?

It’s been a relatively mild June for the region, said Ed Delgado, the predictive-services manager for the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates national support for wildland firefighting. Delgado’s unit forecasts the nation’s fire season.

“We’ve had some fires, but not what we’d expect,” he said.

So far.

It’s dry. In May, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency. The snowpack is gone. Fuel is abundant in the region’s forests.

Delgado said July and August lightning strikes will determine if the fire season becomes problematic.

“The potential is there,” said Delgado. “All the conditions are starting to line up for that possibility — but it requires a weather event that we can’t forecast that far in advance.”

How bad was last season?

Last year brought one of the worst fire seasons in state history. The Carlton complex fire, more than 250,000 acres at its peak, was the largest wildfire in state history. It burned more than 300 homes.

From 1992 to 2013, 870 fires larger than 100 acres were recorded in the state, according to federal fire-database records.

Why are fire seasons so bad now?

In 1910, wildfires ravaged the Northwest, blackening some 3 million acres and killing 78 firefighters, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

The result: sweeping policy changes focused on suppression, said Stephen Pyne, a fire historian, author and professor at Arizona State University.

After 1910, “We spent 50 years trying to take fire out of the landscape with some success,” Pyne said of the government’s response to 1910’s “Big Blowup.”

Perhaps most indicative of the early approach to wildfire was the Forest Service’s 1935 introduction of the 10 a.m. policy — a requirement that all fires be extinguished by the following morning.

In the 1960s and 1970s, suppression-only thinking started to wane. Pyne said scientists began to realize fires were a necessary piece of forest ecology. Some were allowed to burn. In 1978, the Forest Service put an end to its 10 a.m. policy, but with changing administrations, the government’s approach to — and funding for — wildland fire has lacked consistency.

Meanwhile, small trees, brush and grass have thickened in the nation’s wildland areas, giving fires more fuel and potential to spread.

What are the costs?

The costs of fighting fire have soared and federal agencies bear the brunt of that expense. The U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior have spent more than a billion dollars each year suppressing wildfires in 13 of the past 15 years.

The effort has compromised agency budgets. A Forest Service report last year showed the agency went from spending 16 percent of its budget on fire management in 1995 to 42 percent last year.

Worse, the Forest Service routinely exceeds its budget to fight wildfires. To put out fires, the agency has had to raid other programs, including those that treat ailing forests, which can prevent devastating fires.

“It’s self-defeating. If you don’t reduce fuels, you wind up in an arms race you’re not going to win,” said Pyne.

What about at the state level?

Wildfires have stretched the state budget, too.

Gov. Inslee earlier this year signed a supplemental budget that allotted an extra $88 million to cover last season’s firefighting costs for multiple state agencies.

A federal study found that about 30 percent (2.7 million acres) of Eastern Washington federal, state, tribal and private forestland needs some kind of thinning or treatment to reduce the risk of wildfire. That could include cutting smaller trees or using planned fires to thin the forest.

But the state hasn’t invested as heavily in forest management as it has in suppressing fires.

From 2010-2014, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spent about $200 million on suppressing fires but just $31 million on treating the forests.

State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark is pushing the Legislature again this year for more fire-management funding. In previous years, he’s not had much luck.

“I asked for $20 million the last biennium and we got four,” Goldmark said.

An average of nearly 5,300 acres of DNR-owned land was thinned each year from 2010-2014, specifically to reduce fire risk, but Goldmark said that’s not nearly enough.

The goal is to treat 40,000 to 50,000 acres every two years, he said.

In a report to the Legislature, DNR said more than 250,000 acres it owns need treatment.

Who does this affect?

More people are moving into fire-prone areas, what experts call the wildland-urban interface (WUI).

About 21 percent of Washington’s WUI already is developed, according to Headwaters Economics, an independent think tank.

Through the 1990s, the number of structures in fire-prone areas grew 30 percent, according to research led by the University of Wisconsin, a trend researchers say has continued.

University of Wisconsin researcher Susan Stewart said housing prices in some areas have pushed more people into exurbs in fire-prone wildland. She also said baby boomers looking for scenery are retiring to rural areas.

“Baby boomers are just in the sweet spot of retiring now,” said Stewart. “As baby boomers retire, we do expect development.”

Federal records show that more than half of Washington’s fires from 1992-2013 were started by people. More people in wildland areas could mean more fires.

Development in the WUI can be problematic for firefighters, too. More structures give firefighters more to protect.

Will this get better?

From year to year, fire seasons’ magnitude varies widely, but scientists expect climate change to exacerbate the nation’s fire problem.

“Regardless of what the projections are for climate change, we do have a fire issue,” said Jeremy Littell, the lead research scientist at the Alaska Climate Science Center. “Climate change only makes it worse in most cases. Generally speaking, you expect more fire activity.”

Dave Peterson, a research biologist at the Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory who has studied the effect of climate change on fire, said he expects area burned by wildfire in the West to double or triple by midcentury.

Peterson said researchers are able to project what climate change might bring based on existing 25- to 30-year ocean-atmosphere weather cycles.

“If the future looks like a warm cycle, then we know we’re going to have a lot more fire,” said Peterson.

Littell said he’s most interested in figuring out how quickly climate change and wildfires affect the landscape.

“We recognize the climate is changing. We expect more fire, and perhaps it will be more frequently severe. What do we expect the rate of change in forest ecosystems (to be), and what do they look like?”