Washington is usually ablaze with wildfires this time of year. What happened?
Experts say a comparatively cool, wet summer kept the megafires of recent years out of most of the state. But we aren’t out of the woods yet.
After choking down smoke and watching large swaths of forest burn the past two summers, much of Washington state braced for the 2019 wildfire season with N95 masks in hand and air purifiers waiting to kick in. But now it’s late August, when fire activity usually peaks, and we’re still waiting for the Big Fire.
Outside of a few large fires east of the Cascades, the blazes have been small and not as widespread compared with recent years. Meanwhile, the Northwest so far has escaped the worst impacts of long-distance smoke from places like Alaska and Siberia.
“Early in the season we were predicting pretty heavily above-average potential for large fires and above-average activity for most of the state,” says meteorologist Josh Clark of the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, “and we really haven't seen that manifest this year.”
Northwest Interagency Coordination Center fire analyst Timothy Klukas echoed Clark’s assessment.
“It appeared that things were quite dry in the northwest and the western side of the region, and that our drought was going to continue to give us problems, and so what happened is something a little bit different than that,” says Klukas. The Portland-based Northwest Interagency Coordination Center helps integrate firefighting efforts of federal and state departments in Oregon and Washington.
When the 2019 wildfire season broke out early on the west side of the state, people took notice. Smoke threats from within the state and as far away as Siberia pushed cities like Seattle to prepare to offer dedicated smoke havens.
Locals who prepared for fire are wondering how long it will be until their new tools and protocols are needed. Members of Seattle’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America started collecting more than 1,000 smoke masks in February to distribute to members, the unhoused, outdoor workers and others, says the Seattle chapter co-chair Maddie Hanhardt. The chapter had identified distribution centers near the University of Washington and in South Seattle, and was ready to deploy the masks if smoke hit.
“I think a lot of people felt it on an emotional level last year, when summer kind of ended a month early,” Hanhardt says. “While we did invest some money and a lot of time [into mask collection], we luckily haven't had to deploy those masks yet. [But] we're glad that we do have those on hand.”
The precedent for more fire seemed certain: The Pacific Northwest is projected to become warmer and drier with climate change, compounding the fire effects of densely managed forests with lots of fuel to burn. A Pemco Insurance survey from March 2019 found that, since January 2015, the percentage of Washingtonians who believed wildfire or brushfire would directly impact them in the future quintupled, from 5% to 25%. And climatological reports from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center in May portended a hotter and drier summer than average. The state Department of Natural Resources is lobbying for more fire prevention and response funding in anticipation of continued large, simultaneous wildfire campaigns, with Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz saying that without intervention, longer, more intense wildfire seasons will become “the new normal.”
Washington had a full set of long-term ingredients for a bad fire season at the beginning of the summer: moderate to severe drought across the state, above-average temperature projections, low snowpack and plenty of vegetative fuel spurred by late-spring rains.
“Those [early-season] projections keep going for warm and dry, but they're not verifying very well. So we have been a little surprised by some of the stuff, and our outlooks looked as bad as the inputs we put into them,” Eric Wise, fire weather meteorologist with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, says, referencing National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center data.
Assistant State Climatologist Karin Bumbaco doesn’t necessarily agree that forecasts — of which there have been many this summer, run at shorter intervals — haven’t panned out. But the fire risk certainly didn’t follow.
“The Climate Prediction Center… they were saying ‘odds of warmer temperatures and slightly higher odds of drier conditions for the summer as a whole,’ and that is what we've seen,” she says. "But I think [they didn’t anticipate the rain]. I don't think that was in any forecast.”
A modest summer for Washington wildfires
Eighteen large fires — those that burn at least 100 acres of timber or 300 acres of grass or brush — have broken out in Washington this season. The state just finished battling the Williams Flats fire, the season’s largest large fire, which reached 44,515 acres within the Colville Reservation and is now 100% contained. But as of Aug. 20, Oregon and Washington have seen a collective total of 165,784 acres affected by wildfire, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center — only about 14% of the burned areas at that date last year. In Washington, year-to-date acreage burned is 34% of what it was in 2018.
But “the fuels that are burning are not the type of fuels that result in those big-campaign, smoke-producing fires.... They're not those Carlton [Complex] fires,” says Clark, the Department of Natural Resources meteorologist. “They're catastrophic, of course, to the local population ... but they're not gigantic.”
Despite projections, June rain and lower temperatures kicked the summer into a different gear.
“We're not getting this sustained level of dryness that we would need to put our heavy [...] fuels into a receptive state, and a lot of that is happening across the West,” Clark says.
Bumbaco says that average temperatures this summer have been at or above normal, and it’s been a little bit drier than normal, but “it’s just not that extreme.” Some pockets have been one to two degrees above normal average temperature, but “we haven’t seen so far this summer those really warm daytime temperatures, which has certainly helped in terms of our fire season.”
In Seattle, for example, only two days have met or exceeded 90 degrees Fahrenheit, “which is kind of normal for our summers,” she says, but less than the 11 days in 2018, and the 12 in 2015, so we’re “really not [seeing] these large temperature extremes that we've seen in [past] summers.”
Why the fire season wasn’t as bad as first predicted
Multiple experts told Crosscut that sustained rain, lightning activity and human activity — things meteorologists can’t reasonably forecast months out — have largely kept the season from getting out of control to date. It also has kept firefighting resources from being stretched thin. A wetter July “covered us through the summer and allowed us to be more successful in initial attacks,” Klukas says. “The fuel piece is very key to why we've been able to control the fires that we have had.”
“We can have all these factors that are priming the landscape for a potential fire season, but without human and lightning emissions, and summer weather, and fuel response, we're just not going to see those large fires manifest,” Clark says.
In order for fuel — vegetation including trees, grasses and brush — to catch from an errant campfire or lightning strike, it needs to be dry. But high-pressure weather systems that usually suck moisture from the atmosphere and dry out fuels just haven’t stuck around this summer, Clark says.
Despite some low-pressure systems that push hot, moist air higher as they bring in cool, dry air and wind, overall humidity and temperature haven’t been enough to give lightning strikes a foothold. “We've had a lot of grass fires associated with dry cold fronts … through the Cascade gap, but really, aside from William Flats, after a couple days, those run the course,” Clark says, noting the most available and fire-receptive fuels are driven mostly by conditions we can’t predict at a seasonal scale.
Reese Lolley, director of forest restoration and fire with The Nature Conservancy in Washington, says sporadic and infrequent burn patterns are likely helping the Department of Natural Resources make good use of resources. “There’s not 15 different fires burning at once in Washington and Oregon; when we start seeing multiple fires burning across the state, that's when you start deploying resources in different places,” he says.
More significant is the precipitation factor. Two weeks ago, highly flammable northeast Washington saw enough rain to set off flash-flood warnings.
“It's the exact moment we should be getting large fires, and instead we get an inch, inch-and-a-half of rain. That's very significant — definitely a season-slowing event,” Clark says.
In addition to that and late-June precipitation, Klukas says Washington has received moisture every week to 10 days.
Clark says when it comes to fire suppression the duration of rain matters much more than the amount. Duration helps explain the relative fire resiliency of the Olympics, where nine months of steady drizzle and constant near-100% humidity create a lush, green and nonflammable forest. Conversely, Clark explains thunderstorms in the Columbia Basin deposit high amounts of rain, but long periods in between dry out and prime fuels for wildfire.
“If it rains 5 inches in a day in Okanagan, I couldn’t really care less. What I'm looking for is a significant period of time, maybe that's three, five, seven days, where we have very high relative humidity and sustained precipitation,” he says. “The day-to-day, week-to-week weather has not been conducive to supporting these really large campaign-style fires, where we're putting big teams on them.”
For Lolley, that checks out. “With a little bit higher moisture and timed moisture over the summer — and then with the existing resources we have both within the Forest Service and Department of Natural Resources, it's been a fairly mild summer,” he says “[Of course], if you’re one of the thousands of people that got evacuated from your home [this season], maybe it's feeling like a bigger fire season to you.”
Predicting the unpredictable
In predicting wildfire seasons, it’s those chaotic, random weather and human activity variables that can trip up early-season forecasts, experts say. Clark says it’s difficult to predict lightning strikes more than three days out; human actions are even more unpredictable. Forecasters might pay attention to places where humans are more likely to start fires — recreation areas, areas near large roads and infrastructure — but trying to predict where fires are going to occur and in what abundance, Clark says, “is incredibly hard.”
Compounding the problem is that the effectiveness of fire awareness and safety programs are hard to evaluate, so land managers don’t know if their primary method for mitigating human-started fires works.
“Admittedly we don't do a very good job at capturing and qualifying our prevention messaging,” Clark says. “It's not like you say, ‘Hey, Smokey Bear says don't start fires,’ and then you go to that person and say, ‘Oh, are you going to start a fire now?’ You don't say that. We have no way of quantifying if we actually were successful in preventing fires.”
Clark believes the public is more aware of fire safety after the past few fire seasons. Humans have started 15 fires this year, well below 2018’s 42; but the low number of lightning-caused fires means in 2019 means humans still caused 97% of the total acreage burned this year.
All of this is not to say that months-out forecasts aren’t valuable — it’s just that they need to be put in perspective. It’s especially hard, Clark says, to forecast on the west side of the state, where we have limited large fire data to work with.
“I think you should put a lot of stock into [climate forecasts],” Clark says. “They're seldom wrong. but the public should recognize that there are limitations to what we know. None of us is an oracle: I mean, we can't gaze into a crystal ball and magically fathom what's going to happen in three to six months.”
Wise agrees that long-term projections are difficult. “I think it's perhaps as much art as science. We rely on those products from the Climate Prediction Center folks and, again, they just haven't verified very well this year.”
Could big fires still be on the way?
The weather is sort of like the stock market, Wise says: Past performance doesn’t guarantee future returns — which means the season could still get bad.
However, Klukas says that over the past 10 to 15 years, the number of large fires has decreased after Aug. 20: The days get shorter and temperatures cool off in September, limiting the areas where large fires can occur.
“We've in fact adjusted our seasonal, or monthly, outlook to say that the rest of August we're at normal risk levels,” Wise says. “We’ll reevaluate at the beginning of [September] ... and we're certainly not saying that we're out of the woods yet. But we think we're on the downhill side of [the season].”
Wildfire season starts the first week of July and doesn’t end until the first week of October on the heels of a rain-shepherding cold front, so there's still potential for fire and smoke, especially for the Columbia Basin and other places on the east side, Klukas says.
But “it's going to depend on if we get another big upper, high-pressure system bringing those hot and dry conditions” that also allow smoke to accumulate,” Clark says.
Periods of low temperature, sustained rain and high relative humidity will suppress that risk.
“We have a ton of resources available right now to suppress fire so it would be very anomalous for a catastrophic type fire to occur on either side,” Clark adds. “But stranger things have happened.”
Climate change and future wildfire seasons
It’s hard to say what’s in store for near-term fire seasons in Washington, Clark says, because our period of record is so short. Fires didn’t become problematic until the past few decades, he says, pointing to the seasons in 1994 and 2003 as early examples.
For right now, the drastic differences between fire seasons are ”just interannual climate variability,” Clark says. Until we can look back on 30 more years of data, it’ll be hard to see any trends.
Plus, long-term climate trends give us crucial perspective. This year may have been cooler and wetter than the recent past, but it was a fairly average year historically, Wise says. “And I think that's why a lot of the projections did badly this year, that this was not really a typical type of summer of late … it's cooler and [more] moist, back to historic averages.”
“If we're comparing [this summer against] the last 10 years to date, it's been a fairly mild fire season, [but] if we went back 30 years, it seems like it's still a pretty big fire season,” Lolley adds.
“I think we're still at a point where we're going to have quiet fire seasons,” Bumbaco says. We haven’t “reached some new normal or threshold.”
More importantly, this milder fire season doesn’t change the urgency of wildfire in the Northwest: Climate models do predict overall drier summers that run hotter for longer, which heightens fire risk.
No matter how much the rains and temperatures tamp down fire risk this year, there are still fire restrictions in much of the state, and Carol Connolly, pubic information specialist with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, says the Pacific Northwest has seen “an uptick in abandoned camp fires in both Oregon and Washington over the last couple weeks.”
With Labor Day and hunting season coming up, agencies are staying vigilant.
“There's some areas that indicate that with the right conditions we could still have large catastrophic fire,” Connolly says.
Lolley believes people are prepared to stay alert about fire risk even after a relatively weak year.
“I think in '14 we thought, ‘OK, bad fire year, [but] we're going to get back to normal,’ and in '15, that clearly didn't happen. We blew one record out of the water after another, and I think a mindset started in Washington then, that our future is going to be different and we need to develop different strategies and approaches.”
Seattle Democratic Socialist of America’s Hanhardt remains ready for fires, in this season and beyond.
“It's better to be prepared than underprepared, and we'll have them for whenever the next big wildfire smoke season hits,” she says. “Because if it's not now it'll be in a couple months from now, you know?"
Update: The first of two mentions of the Democratic Socialists of America misspelled the organization's name as the "Democrat Socialists of America," and has been adjusted so that both are correct.