With “unhealthy” forests choked by drought, conditions were ripe for wildfire. In the future, climate change won’t help.

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More than 900,000 acres have already burned this year in Washington wildfires, more than doubling last year’s total, and the Okanogan complex fire is the largest in state history.

Although the scale of this year’s fire season is unprecedented in recent history, it was not unpredictable. Why wildfire is consuming our forests:

The forests and grasslands are not healthy

Until the 1970s, the country’s fire policy called for blazes to be put out immediately. That approach allowed small trees, brush and grass to thicken in the nation’s wildland areas, giving fires more fuel and potential to spread.

Wildfire coverage

Wildfire growth
Twisp fire
Volunteers

In an interview earlier this summer, state forester Aaron Everett characterized the state’s forests as “sick and dying fire-prone forests.”

His boss, Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who runs the Department of Natural Resources, didn’t mince words either.

“They’re vulnerable to fire,” he said in an interview. “We need to treat our forests.”

Analysis by the Nature Conservancy and U.S. Forest Service 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.

Last decade, more than 1 million acres of forest each year was damaged by insects and disease, according to a Forest Service report. That figure represents a 200 percent increase since the 1980s.

The states grasslands are also rife with cheatgrass — an invasive species from Eurasia found across the hillsides east of the Cascades. Cheatgrass turns brown and flammable earlier in the summer.

“We call it ‘grassoline’ because it burns so hot and fast,” Ken Frederick, a former firefighter, told The Seattle Times.

Government spends little on wildfire-prevention measures

Wildfire has not only consumed the forests but state and federal budgets, too. The state and federal governments spend far more money on suppressing, or putting out, wildfires than they do on reducing wildfire risk.

A Forest Service report this year showed the agency went from spending 16 percent of its budget on fire management in 1995 to more than 50 percent this year.

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 budgets have been similarly taxed. The Legislature this year had to pass a supplemental budget to spend an additional $88 million to put out the Carlton complex fire.

The Department of Natural Resources asked for about $10 million a year for forest health programs in 2015 and 2016. State forester Everett said the Legislature in its budget gave only $5 million, but it still was “the largest-ever single appropriation for forest-hazard reduction.”

He said it’s not enough.

Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources spends far more money putting out fires than on its forest-health improvement program, which can help prevent bad ones. State lawmakers this legislative session approved an increase in forest-health funding, from $2 million in 2013 to $5 million (not including federal grants). The cost of the Carlton complex fire will be accounted for in the 2015 fiscal year. Source: Washington Department of Natural Resources (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times)
Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources spends far more money putting out fires than on its forest-health improvement program, which can help prevent bad ones. State lawmakers this legislative session approved an increase in forest-health funding, from $2 million in 2013 to $5 million (not including federal grants). The cost of the Carlton complex fire will be accounted for in the 2015 fiscal year. Source: Washington Department of Natural Resources (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times)

Drought has choked Northwest forests of moisture

A massive drought has choked Northwest forests of water and left the state tinder dry.

 

Related video: Residents evacuate, volunteer to fight fires

"We just have a lot invested here," says Jim Brown of Okanogan as he prepares to leave his home. With the state's resources tapped, community members are signing up to be volunteer firefighters. Read more. (Bettina Hansen & Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)    

In March, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency. In June, Washington’s snowpack measures had already hit zero.

From December through February, Pacific Northwest temperatures averaged 5.6?degrees Fahrenheit higher than those from 1970 through 1999, according to an analysis by the National Climatic Data Center.

Even the rain forest on the Olympic peninsula, one of the wettest places in North America, is burning.

More people are living in wildland areas

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

By 2008, about 21 percent of Washington’s WUI had been 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. It’s a trend WUI researcher Susan Stewart say has continued.

More people in wildland areas could mean more fires. Federal records show that more than 70 percent of Washington’s fires from 1992-2013 were caused by humans.

Development can change firefighters priorities, too. More development gives firefighters more structures to protect.

Although some residents take seriously protecting their property, firefighters are often diverted to protect private land.

Climate change won’t help

Fire seasons vary widely, depending on a host of factors. 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, in an interview earlier this summer. “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 studies climate change’s effect on fire, said he expects areas burned by wildfire in the West to double or triple by midcentury.

Scientists say this year’s drought conditions could be a clue of what the future holds for our climate.

“I talk about this year as a dress rehearsal for the future,” said Guillaume Mauger, a University of Washington climate researcher, earlier this summer. “If you look at precipitation, it was just like any other year. But the temperature was far above what we’ve seen in the 20th century — and that’s exactly what we expect of climate change.”