A Washington State Ferry makes it way across Elliott Bay from downtown Seattle during a smoky sunset. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
If you were in the Pacific Northwest during last September’s super smoky wildfires, it was a miserable, apocalyptic-hued experience that isn’t soon forgotten. This year, the region is in the grips an extreme drought and has already logged a record-breaking number of blazes. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee Tuesday evening issued a statewide state of emergency due to wildfires, banning most outdoor burning until the fall.
So is another fiery smokeageddon on the horizon for 2021? And if so, what can you do about it?
When it comes to wildfires, “all bets are we’re going to be pretty active this year,” said Eric Wise, a meteorologist with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, a regional hub of wildfire management.
Map of wildfires burning in Washington and Oregon on July 8, 2021. (Northwest Interagency Coordination Center website)
Wise looks at multiple factors when considering the likelihood of fires and the areas most at risk. That includes longer-term tools that predict the temperature and precipitation for the summer, which is forecast to be hot and dry. And the recent record-smashing heat dome that killed 78 people in Washington didn’t help matters.
The center also relies on 72 automated weather stations in Washington and Oregon that take readings on temperature, wind and humidity in order to estimate the flammability or “curing” of grasses, shrubs and trees that can ignite and then spread and sustain fires. Satellite images of vegetation and ground surveys help fill out the picture. The region is about a month ahead of schedule in terms of things drying out and becoming fuel for fires, Wise said.
In the near term, he and other experts look at weather forecasts, particularly the chance of lightning and winds that spark and drive blazes.
The wildcard in their predictions is the human element. Most wildfires are started by people, and the behavior mostly likely to trigger a blaze is burning debris, as well as campfires, fireworks, machinery and tools, cigarettes and other incendiary activities that can be prevented.
“The human ignition issue is the hardest for us to predict,” Wise said, “but it’s where people can help.”
Clearing the air on smoke forecasts
Last year when the Northwest was smothered by smoke, experts miscalled when the air was likely to clear thanks to the challenges of making accurate smoke forecasts. Washington’s Department of Ecology recently released a new tool to help remedy those problems, providing a five-day smoke forecast for most of the state.
“The big unknown is what the fire behavior is going to be,” said Ranil Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist with the Department of Ecology and lead of the forecast project. That includes whether the fire grows and the degree of containment, as well as the ignition of new blazes. To better incorporate those uncertainties, “we decided to come up with several ‘what if’ scenarios,” he said, improving and extending their modeling.
The forecasts are still unlikely to be perfect every time, but Dhammapala wanted to get the information out to the public and will make adjustments as needed.
“The main thing is to give people a little more time to protect themselves,” he said.
That includes limiting outdoor activities and using air filtering devices indoors. Air conditioners with HEPA filters clean indoor air, and so will a box fan outfitted with a furnace filter using DIY instructions. N95 masks can prevent people from inhaling ultra small, hazardous air pollution particles, but cloth masks don’t cut it.
The extended forecast will soon be incorporated into the Washington Smoke Blog, a popular go-to site for public information on smoke and wildfires to which Dhammapala is a frequent contributor.
Our wildfire future
Investments into better monitoring and modeling make good sense, wildfire and climate experts agree. A report released Wednesday by a cohort of international scientists linked the recent heat dome to climate change and predicted similar events will become more frequent as the planet warms.
“The role of climate change is to make the fire season more extreme in a number of ways. Warmer temperatures extend our fire season on either end. It’s starting a little bit earlier and can last a little longer into the fall,” said Crystal Raymond, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.
Raymond’s focus is on adaption to the changing environment, including forests and fire ecology.
When it comes to communities built in the woods, “there’s a lot that individuals can do to be more prepared in terms of helping their home have the best chance of being protected and surviving a fire,” she said. “And for everybody, there are opportunities to be more aware of a fire season when it looks particularly severe, and also know the short-term fire weather conditions just like we might be on the lookout for a major flooding event if we lived on a river.”
We’ve seen over 200 wildfires this season and our firefighters have been on the front lines of each one. It’s time for us to have their backs by ensuring proper equipment and resources to stay safe while fighting the flames. #InternationalFirefightersDay
*Photos taken pre-COVID. pic.twitter.com/gWz2SixRqh
— Hilary Franz (@Hilary_FranzCPL) May 4, 2021
The scientist said there is growing interest in tamping down the fire risk in central and eastern Washington. That includes reducing the available fuel by thinning out small trees and understory vegetation, as well as controlled burns in spring and fall during conditions where smoke less likely to bother people. On the western side of the state, wide-scale thinning and burns are less practical, but homeowners should take steps to manage vegetation on their own properties.
Raymond is also a proponent of improving our wildfire response systems, comparing it to earthquake preparations meant to warn communities and help them respond when tragedy hits.
And, somewhat surprisingly, Raymond offered some words of reassurance on the wildfire front. While human-caused climate change stokes the fires, the burns are also a natural part of the historic ecosystem, she said. Fires are more deadly for western Washington trees, but forests on both sides of the Cascade Mountains can recover, though people might need to help with regrowth.
“With climate change making it a little bit more of a stressful situation for the vegetation, we may need to assist,” she said. “But the forests themselves, the habitat, they are fairly resilient.”
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