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Washington burning: Wildfires are adding up

A wildfire crew gets some food in June. Credit: Washington DNR/Flickr

Wildfires have burned about 74,000 acres of Washington since June 1 — roughly twice the acreage that burned in the same period in 2014.

And hot, dry weather appears to be the safe bet through next winter.

State officials briefed the press Friday on the statewide drought, Washington’s worse since at least the late 19th century.

“We have never experienced a drought like this,” said Maia Bellon, director of Washington’s Department of Ecology. She said 98.6 percent of the state could be considered in severe drought conditions. (Ecology has a web site on the drought.)

Since June 1,747 wildfires have destroyed 74,000 acres of land, or 115 square miles, compared to 35,000 acres in the same period last year. This year’s fires have burned an area a third again as large as Seattle, which covers 84 square miles.

On July 14 last year, lightning strikes in dry conditions sparked the Carleton Complex fires, which became the largest in Washington’s history. The fires in Chelan and Okanogan counties destroyed more than 300 homes, caused one death by a heart attack, and required 3,000 people to combat.

As a result, the Washington Department of Natural Resources has pre-positioned firefighting equipment this summer to react more quickly to spreading wildfires.

Crops on both sides of the Cascades are hurting from the heat and lack of water, officials said. This year, 84 percent of the state’s rivers and streams are below their normal flows, with 44 percent being at record low flows. The flows in the heavily farmed Yakima River basin are less than half normal. Some Walla Walla River basin streams are totally dry.

A preliminary estimate in May predicted the loss of about $1.2 billion worth of crops. In 2013, Washington’s farmers grew $10.1 billion worth of crops. On Friday, Jaclyn Hancock, a hydrogeologist with the Washington Department of Agriculture, said the actual agricultural loss figure probably won’t be known until 2017.

In Seattle, unusually low rainfalls and the hottest June on record has led to Seattle Public Utilities warning residents to be extra careful in their use of water. However, water usage in Seattle has been running slightly ahead of other recent years, according to Seattle Public Utilities.

Gov. Jay Inslee has cited low snowpacks, abnormally warm weather and the loss of crops as reasons to combat global warming, which has been one of his top issues. His efforts to combat carbon emissions were stalled or stopped in Legislature this year.

However, Sen. James Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, managed to get $16 million in drought relief money allocated for 2015-2017. The money will go to irrigation districts and public utilities for water-related repairs and improvements, digging wells and pumping water from one location to another. And it will be used to lease water from senior water-rights holders to send to those who may need it the most.

Nick Bond of the Office of the Washington State Climatologist, said that the next one or two weeks might cool a bit, but that August and September are tentatively expected to be warmer and drier than normal. Also, he said, next winter is tentatively expected to be warmer than normal and dry.

This story was first posted on Friday, July 17.

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