OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee Wednesday announced an emergency drought declaration to cover nearly all of Washington.
The announcement comes after an extended drought — made worse by the recent heat waves — has lasted into wildfire season, with blazes tearing across Eastern and Central Washington.
The emergency declaration is geared especially toward helping farmers and fish populations, which have been hard hit by extended drought and now high summer temperatures. Exempt from the declaration are the Seattle, Everett and Tacoma metro areas. Those areas have municipal water, as well as water storage.
In a news conference, Inslee was joined by, among others, state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, Department of Agriculture Director Derek Sandison and Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson.
“Unfortunately we’ve had the second-driest spring on record since 1895,” Watson said at the news conference. “Followed by a record-breaking heat wave in late June.”
The emergency declaration signals that water supplies are projected to be 75% of average, according to the governor’s office. It allows the state Department of Ecology to take some emergency measures, like quicker processing for emergency drought permits and allowing temporary transfers of water rights and funding assistance to public entities like irrigation districts.
Watson said about $300,000 is so far available for that kind of assistance, but officials are looking for more dollars that could be used.
In addition to water woes, the drought is helping to create what could be a potentially extremely damaging wildfire season.
Last month, the National Interagency Fire Center issued a warning for “above normal significant fire potential” for much of the Northwest from July to September.
By mid-June, Washington had responded to at least 410 fires on state lands, according to Franz. That was “the highest number of year-to-date fires in our history,” she said at the time.
Larger fires are now cropping up.
Currently, a quickly spreading brush fire in Chelan County near Wenatchee has threatened more than 1,000 homes, as well as orchards and a Chelan County Public Utility District substation. The Red Apple fire is estimated at 9,000 acres.
Meanwhile, a trio of fires in Okanogan County have prompted evacuations on the Colville Indian Agency, in Nespelem, and for residents of Owhi Flats along Cache Creek Road.
Officials learned Tuesday that the Chuweah Creek fire by the Colville Indian Agency “has destroyed a number of homes,” Franz said.
Other fires have sprung up around East Wenatchee and Cheney.
So far this season, three firefighters have been injured in the blazes, said Franz.
“Our firefighters are already putting in long hours … 18-hour days, they’re doing it week after week,” said Franz, adding later: “We’re seeing hundreds of evacuations.”
Washington’s blazes join more than 300 fires in British Columbia, two dozen in California, and more than a dozen each in Idaho and Oregon.
Inslee used Wednesday’s news conference to hammer home the threat of climate change to Washington.
“I do believe this summer is a summer for all Washingtonians to ask ourselves this question,” said Inslee. “What is Washington without healthy forests, oysters, salmon? What is Washington without glaciers and alpine meadows?
“What is Washington without the ability of our children to go out in a smoke-free atmosphere in August?” he added. “This is a moment, a crux moment in the state of Washington.”
In a statement Wednesday, state Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Waitsburg, said the governor should have acted sooner in declaring a drought emergency.
“Now that a state of emergency has been declared, our local growers will have access to the critical resources they desperately need during these challenging times of economic hardship,” said Dozier in prepared remarks. “While I appreciate the governor for providing relief to local farmers, doing so sooner would have greatly reduced the burden brought on by this drought.”
In mid-June, leaders of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and the Washington Grain Commission penned a letter to Inslee asking him to declare a drought emergency.
Watson said the state couldn’t have declared a drought earlier because it hadn’t yet met the legal threshold to do so.