Was that it for this year’s smoke and wildfire season?
Probably yes, say those keeping track. And if so, we’re lucky.
Despite the recent wind-whipped fires in Western Washington that forced evacuations, sent hikers fleeing and blanketed Seattle and the region with smoke, the state is seeing its third-lightest wildfire season in a decade, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
So far this year about 42,000 acres have burned in 530 fires on DNR land. That’s the third-lowest tally in a decade, said Thomas Kyle-Milward, the department’s communications manager for wildfire. “This has been a very, very quiet year, and with weather models predicting a downward glide in terms of fire weather conditions, we’re sitting really pretty,” he said.
Our long, wet spring is largely responsible, he said. Wet springs can be a double-edged sword, making things grow but also creating more potential fuel. But this year, temperatures didn’t start heating up until June, so there wasn’t quite enough time for the fuel to fully cure, he said.
On Tuesday, evacuations and road closures remained in place at the Bolt Creek fire, which covered 9,440 acres and was reported to be 5% contained. The fire grew about 2,000 acres from Monday but still remained almost entirely north of the shuttered Highway 2. Most of the growth was new burning within the interior of the fire, rather than an expanding perimeter, officials said.
Index residents were allowed to return home Tuesday evening, as the town was shifted from a Level 3 evacuation order to a Level 2. Level 3 means residents should evacuate immediately, while Level 2 means they should be set to leave at a moment’s notice.
A stretch of Highway 2 covering the communities of Baring and Grotto remains under a Level 3 evacuation order. And the highway itself is still closed for a roughly 17-mile stretch from Gold Bar to Skykomish.
The Washington State Department of Transportation said it had no estimate for when the highway would reopen.
A lot of the work along the highway Tuesday was to remove potential hazard trees, those that had been damaged or weakened by fire or by firefighting, said Rachel Lipsky, a spokesperson for Northwest Incident Management Team 8.
“We can’t reopen roads if we’ve got dead, dying trees that could fall on people that are driving,” Lipsky said. “We really have to make sure that stretch of road is safe.”
Firefighters were working to use the highway and smaller forest roads as containment lines to limit the fire’s spread, and the blaze had crossed Highway 2 at only one point, burning on top of the Money Creek Tunnel between Skykomish and Grotto.
Firefighters on Tuesday performed tactical burns on both sides of the tunnel to reduce available fuel and preserve the highway as a containment line. They also used heavy equipment to clear brush and potential fuel from along forest roads on the east and west sides of the blaze so the roads could be used as fire lines.
The north edge of the fire is “pretty inaccessible,” Lipsky said, with very steep terrain in a wilderness area.
Power also was restored to the town of Skykomish on Tuesday afternoon. Puget Sound Energy had preemptively cut it off Saturday, out of fear power lines could spark more fires.
South of Mount Rainier, meanwhile, the Goat Rocks fire was 0% contained and still burning on 3,096 acres.
Wildfire and smoke season has become an unofficial part of the Puget Sound region’s calendar since 2012, when area fires ramped up from covering 19,930 acres in 2011 to 228,452, said Kyle-Milward, who each year tabulates fire statistics across various state and federal agencies involved in wildfire management.
“Since then, we’ve never had less than 150,000 acres burn,” he said.
Many of the 2012 blazes were sparked by a September lightning storm that set off hundreds of fires across the east side of the Cascade Mountains. Smoke caused hazardous air quality conditions in Ellensburg and Wenatchee and was noticeable in Seattle.
On Aug. 19, 2015, three firefighters were killed and one was gravely injured battling a wildfire near Twisp. That fire was part of the Okanogan Complex fire, one of the largest wildfires in Washington state history, along with the 2014 Carlton Complex fire, which burned over 304,782 acres.
In 2017, the Puget Sound region was covered with smoke from hundreds of fires in British Columbia for more than a week.
In 2020, rare, high-powered eastern windstorms over Labor Day weekend started fires in California, Oregon and Washington, sending heavy smoke and poor air quality up and down the West Coast. Until then, it had been a good fire season. But the winds “took a very dry landscape and made it into a hellscape,” Kyle-Milward said.
Though 2021’s fire season didn’t bring wildfire and smoke to Seattle’s doorstep, it started early — with 220 DNR fires by April, an agency record — and lasted until the rain came. Fire and thick, choking smoke threatened livelihoods as well as some of Seattle’s favorite recreational areas in Methow Valley towns.
It could have been a “poster for what climate change has done to fire seasons,” Kyle-Milward said. “It takes them from seasons and turns them into fire years.”