Cold 2011 has benefits: Washington wildfires way down
By MIKE BAKER
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- The cold, wet weather that persisted through much of Washington this year has helped minimize the number of wildfires that usually wreak havoc during the summer months.
On state-protected lands, the number of wildfires through the end of July was down sharply, from an average of 467 in the past three years to only 214 this year. The number of acres burned fell even more dramatically, from about 11,000 acres average to about 200.
This week in August typically marks the midpoint -- and pinnacle -- of the fire season. But officials have battled only a few small blazes, and forecasters see no signs of any major lightning storms in the immediate future.
The only question is whether it will stay that way.
"I very much like where we are, but I'm a long way from being comfortable that it's going to stay that way," said Joe Shramek, who leads the state's wildfire protection efforts at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. "There's still another six weeks of potential for fire that could become significant."
Shramek said it appears Washington has also been aided by a summer burn ban on state lands.
Ellie Kelch, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Spokane, said the wet spring left much of eastern Washington's timber and larger fuels so wet that they still haven't dried enough to carry a major fire. Unless there is an extended dry period through September, it's possible those fuels won't become a significant fire threat this year.
Kelch is more concerned about the long grasses, which grew prolifically with the aid of wet weather but have since dried. The state could see some more of those fires, though they typically burn out more quickly.
Washington's low fire activity has been aided not just by the wet, cold weather but also by the lack of lightning. Storms have triggered wildfires in Oregon, Idaho and Montana but have seemed to largely bypass Washington, Kelch said. The storms that have hit the state have sprouted only minor lightning.
"It's been a very moderated pattern," Kelch said. "There's been no big extremes."
Lands in southeastern Oregon and Idaho haven't fared as well because they have seen more lightning activity. The federal Bureau of Land Management has seen some 28,000 acres burned in Oregon, mostly in its Vale district next to Idaho. Oregon forestry lands, meanwhile, have only seen a couple hundred acres burn, down from its usual of more than 20,000 acres to this point.
Because Oregon officials have been spared any large fires on state-managed lands, they haven't had to mobilize many of the resources that are usually busy around the clock this time of year.
"That saves potentially millions (of dollars)," said Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Rod Nichols. "Of course, we've got a long ways to go yet."
Aside from frustrating people on summer vacation, the weather has had a variety of other, negative repercussions in the state. Gov. Chris Gregoire asked the federal government this week to consider declaring the state a farming disaster because the cold weather had ruined crop development. Attendance at Mount Rainier National Park has dropped precipitously because snow still covers many of the trails.
Associated Press Writer Mike Baker can be reached at http://twitter.com/MikeBakerAP
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.