Forecasters are predicting hotter- and drier-than-normal conditions for the region this summer, likely leading to fires, though fewer are expected overall from the previous year.
Preparations are under way to fight fires statewide during the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, or what some officials consider the state’s unofficial beginning of its annual wildfire marathon.
Meteorologists are predicting moderate temperatures and humidity for the holiday, conditions they say could hopefully limit fires.
On Friday and Saturday, National Weather Service meteorologists are expecting mostly cloudy skies, followed by a slight chance of showers Sunday for the Seattle area. During all three days, they are expecting high temperatures to stay in the low 70s.
Fire Prevention Tips
• Make sure recreational vehicles have a device that prevents sparks.
• Do not park vehicles in dry, grassy areas because residual heat from exhaust systems can ignite the grass.
• Know the current wildfire risk in your county or destination.
• Keep an ashtray or cup of water handy for putting out smoking materials.
• Keep campfires small and never leave them unattended. Have a shovel and water nearby.
— Washington State Department of Natural Resources
And as of Thursday evening, forecasters were predicting partial sun for Independence Day with the same level of warmth. That’s dramatically different from last year’s “nastily, scorchingly hot and dry” conditions, National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Haner said, when the area’s high temperature reached 92 degrees.
“There were lots and lots of fire starts, perhaps even more than usual as a result of fireworks last year,” he said. “Just having it cooler, more humid should be a little better.”
Fireworks contributed to more than 480 fires last year, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damaged property. Firefighters, 911 dispatchers and other emergency-management officials each year brace for the holiday as the fire season’s unofficial start.
Typically, the wildfire season in the Northwest begins in earnest in July and runs through September. This summer, forecasters are predicting hotter- and drier-than normal conditions for the region, which Haner said they expect will cause some fires, though likely fewer overall from this past year.
“If we end up with less precipitation than normal this summer,” he said, “it’ll probably balance out to be a near-normal fire season.” That’s partly because a lot of summer precipitation comes from thunderstorms, which produce lightning that starts a lot of fires, he said.
The recent El Niño phenomenon, which typically brings extra warmth, has weakened and is seemingly over, said Ted Buehner, National Weather Service warning coordinator in Seattle. La Niña cooling appears to be under way, which forecasters say could bring considerably active weather this fall and winter, he said.
“The drought is officially over,” Haner said. “If we do end up having drought conditions later this summer, it should be pretty short-lived.”
During last year’s historic wildfire season, amid blazing temperatures and widespread drought conditions, 1.8 million acres burned in Oregon and Washington, he said.
In comparison, forecasters say the long-range outlook for this year indicates the season will be closer to the annual median of acres burned over the past 28 years, when some 250,000 acres are destroyed in both states, he said.
The season seemingly started early this year with unusually dry, warm weather in April that melted snow, dried out vegetation and primed forests in Snohomish County for two large fires in mid-May. Dry conditions in Grant County, too, led to one fire last week after a vehicle crash and another near the Gorge Amphitheatre during Sasquatch! Music Festival.
And those are just a fraction of the state’s total so far this year. Janet Pearce, spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said officials have responded to more than 230 wildfires since the beginning of the year, the majority of which people caused. Around this time last year, the department logged about the same, she said.
“It (this year’s number) didn’t alarm us, but it made us think, ‘Fires can start early again this year,’” she said. Officials have trained about 1,100 firefighters recently, she added.
Pearce and others are stressing safety and urging people to attend large, public firework displays instead of shooting off private ones to avoid fires.
Washington state law generally allows fireworks for the Fourth of July to be sold and discharged from June 28 through July 5. The law also allows local jurisdictions to adopt their own tougher restrictions. Fireworks are banned in Seattle, Tukwila and Bellevue, among other cities.
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Also, officials urge precaution while purchasing fireworks. Some stands sell fireworks that are illegal to have, sell or light in the state, said Nanette Tatom of Gig Harbor Fire and Medic One.
“Really anything that’s blowing up and flying into the air and stuff is an illegal firework,” she said.
For DNR-protected lands, officials prohibit all fireworks and allow campfires only in approved pits when burn bans are not in place, to lower the risk of fires starting.
There now is a burn ban in effect through Sept. 30 at state parks, forests and forestlands east of the Cascade crest.
To report a fire, call 911 or the DNR at 1-800-562-6010.