Although the early-August haze that choked Puget Sound with smoke was the product of Canadian wildfires, the dry season in the South Sound and statewide continues to produce fires frequently enough to spark an array of problems for local and state authorities.
With the wildfire season just reaching what officials hope is its peak, the state Department of Natural Resources had logged 575 fires so far in 2017, with 136,000 acres burned — about on pace for what the state has been seeing in recent years, an agency spokesman said.
Strip away the largest fire of 2016 — the disastrous Range 12 fire near Yakima that did more damage than the rest of the year’s 1,272 wildfires combined — and the amount burned already this year is more acreage than was charred the entire previous year.
This is happening despite a heavy snowfall winter in the mountains that built up snowpack and an October-to-May season with even more rain than usual for other areas because of one recognized phenomenon, DNR spokesman Joe Smillie explained.
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“All that moisture makes the grasses and fuels grow extra thick,” he said, “so that means when they dry up, fires pick up some more intensity.”
The results have flared across the region as grasslands and roadsides wither to crunchy brown dryness. West Pierce Fire & Rescue handled three brush fires along a 1.5-mile stretch of Interstate 5 between Gravelly Lake and Bridgeport on Aug. 8.
“We assume something was driving down the road and throwing up sparks,” said Jenny Weekes, spokeswoman for West Pierce.
Her agency has handled 52 brush fires so far in 2017, which is 10 more than it fought through the same point in 2016.
The Tacoma Fire Department reported Friday that it has seen an abnormally high number of brush and bark fires, with 302 handled since May 1. That’s the second-highest total in the last five years, surpassed only by drought-parched 2015.
“As the weather continues dry, it is predictable that these types of fires will continue until the rains pick up,” Tacoma Fire spokesman Joe Meinecke said.
Even for people clear of the blazes, the fire outbreaks have had disastrous consequences. A brush fire in the median of Interstate 90 near Ellensburg clouded the freeway with smoke Thursday morning, and one person died in an ensuing wreck.
If the 2017 wildfire pace continues at the rate DNR officials expect, the state eventually should see about 300,000 acres burned — a number that has been approached or passed every year since 2014, but had last been reached before that in 2006.
Scientists predict that wildfire season will grow even worse as the effects of climate change intensify. A research paper published in 2016 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused climate change had doubled the West’s total forest-fire area since 1984.
In the here and now, Meinecke said South Sound residents can minimize their risk from the brush-fire disasters of the dry season, such as the two-acre fire near Bonney Lake on Friday, by removing dead vegetation from within 10 feet of their homes, clearing dry leaves out of house gutters and making sure cigarettes and grill charcoal go into metal receptacles.