Canadians are fleeing a massive wildfire in Alberta, Canada, an experience Eastern Washington knows all too well.
As flames split the city in two, more than 80,000 residents were forced to flee the city of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, while firefighters struggle to get a handle on the wildfire that has damaged 1,600 homes and many other buildings.
About 8,000 people needed an airlift away from the blaze.
Last summer, flames roared into a Wenatchee neighborhood, bore down on Twisp in the scenic Methow Valley and burned through Chelan during the height of the tourist season. Washington’s biggest fires last year were slightly larger than the one ravaging Fort McMurray, but they threatened smaller communities than the Canadian oil town.
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More people live on fire-prone lands, and researchers expect more land to be burned by wildfires in the future, as temperatures continue to rise.
Scientists say a dry winter and warm spring set the stage for Alberta’s blazes. Fire seasons are starting earlier there, too, according to The New York Times.
Similarly, forecasters last year correctly predicted a challenging fire season, with Washington in the thick of a drought and with little snowpack.
Although Seattle had a record-setting wet winter, the Northwest is expected to have normal fire conditions this season, which means large fires, particularly in July and August, are possible. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), which coordinates the federal response to wildfires, said April temperatures in the Northwest were warmer and drier than average, which increased snowmelt.
How the region will fare might depend on weather patterns during the latter months of summer, when dry lightning strikes spark blazes.
Elsewhere around the country, forecasters expect an early start to Alaska’s fire season because of higher-than-normal temperatures. Southern California could be looking at a rough fire season as the state enters its fifth year of drought, and trees at high elevation are dying and loading the forest with fuel. More grasses grew there with some winter rain, and they could carry fire, particularly later in the summer.
The Southwest, with heavy grasses, is also a concern for the NIFC.
The cost of fighting fires has strained federal and state budgets. The U.S. Forest Service spent more than half its budget fighting fires in 2015, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the Forest Service will “end up a fire department” if Congress doesn’t ease its budget crunch.
Last month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee approved pulling about $190 million from the state’s reserve fund to pay for last season’s wildfires.
State Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark has publicly admonished state lawmakers for not boosting forest-health funding.
In a new project this year, the state will evaluate the benefits of prescribed burns, or fires set intentionally, which scientists believe can reduce fuels, and uncontrolled wildfire. The state Department of Natural Resources, led by Goldmark, had hindered efforts to scale up prescribed burns.