Northwest fire officials said Tuesday that record-dry conditions, continued heat and incoming lightning storms threaten to escalate a worsening fire season.
Some 17 large fires were burning in Oregon and Washington, with more lightning expected to strike the dried-out region over the next several days. Idaho officials reported a dozen active fires of more than 1,000 acres.
“We’re moving from a moderate to a high level of activity across the state,” said Washington Department of Natural Resources wildfire manager Bob Johnson, chairman of the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group.
“We’re in a position now where our fuels and our weather are working against us,” he said.
Fire and health officials briefed reporters in a conference call on the current status of wildfires and the outlook. Five large fires were burning in Washington, while 12 were burning in Oregon. Fires of more than 100 acres in timberlands or more than 300 acres in rangelands are categorized as large.
Moisture levels in heavy vegetation were at record lows and flames can be expected to spread rapidly at all elevations, according to a report by the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
Forest Service spokeswoman Traci Weaver said Washington has had 699 wildfires so far this season and 89 percent of them were caused by humans. A more normal percentage is 50 to 60 percent, she said.
“We need people to be really, really careful out there,” Weaver said. “Our fuels are incredibly dry. We had a wet winter and wet spring, but the faucet is turned off.”
Health officials said air-monitoring stations showed unhealthy levels of smoke throughout Washington. Some of that smoke drifted south from wildfires in British Columbia. Weaver and Johnson said the B.C. smoke actually kept down temperatures and slowed the spread of fires in Washington.
Winds are expected to ease hazy conditions, but the weather may bring new problems. The National Weather Service issued a warning Tuesday that all of Eastern Washington can expect temperatures much above normal Aug. 11-15. Thunderstorms are expected to move across the region for the rest of the week, particularly through Southern Oregon.
Also Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that July was the fifth-driest on record for Washington. Records date back to 1885.
The percentage of Washington that is “abnormally dry” jumped to 48 percent from 18 percent during the last week of July, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Large fires in Washington include the 3,120-acre Noisy Creek fire in the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington. The fire is not threatening grazing allotments, forest spokesman Franklin Pemberton said. “It’s goat-rock country, straight up and down,” he said.
The 9,905-acre Diamond Creek Fire 27 miles northwest of Winthrop in Okanogan County is burning in thick timberland in the Pasayten Wilderness, according to fire officials. The human-caused fire has been burning since July 23.
The 1,150-acre North Fork Hughes fire is burning unchallenged in the Salmo Priest Wilderness near the Idaho border. Smoke jumpers were dispatched to the fire, but conditions were too dangerous and they have been pulled out. Officials said they are working on a plan to manage the fire.
In Eastern Oregon, officials expected to have the 52,223-acre Cinder Butte fire in Harney County contained by Wednesday. The cause of the fire, which started Aug. 2, is under investigation.
The 4,739-acre Blanket Creek fire is burning timberland 9 miles northeast of Prospect in Southern Oregon. Officials estimated Tuesday that firefighters will need the rest of August to contain the fire.
Fire officials anticipate the Chetco Bar fire in Southern Oregon will be a long-term battle. The lightning-caused fire broke out July 12 in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Josephine County. The fire had grown to 4,821 acres by Tuesday and was zero percent contained.