Washington firefighters battle blazes across states after early start to season

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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A wet spring followed by an unusually hot and dry summer brought an early fire season to the Pacific Northwest.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources say Washington’s fire season is just starting, but what that means for Western Washington is different from what it means for the east side.

“Our fire season is probably just now beginning to heat up,” said Janet Pearce, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.

“The fuels on the landscape are extremely dry because we haven’t had any rain forever,” she said. “That’s causing any little spark to create a wildfire.”

There are more than 20 fires burning in Oregon and a handful around Washington, and they’re taking a toll on Washington’s wildland firefighters.

“Because a lot of our fire crews are down in Oregon, we’re calling for resources from out of state, so they can come and give us a little break and let our firefighters take a couple days off,” Pearce said.

Ben Peeler, fire chief for Clark County Fire District 13, is among the local firefighters on “strike teams” that fight wildfires across the state.

The state pays for the firefighters’ wages. Peeler said the arrangement provides experience firefighters wouldn’t get otherwise.

“When that big fire happens here, we’re going to be prepared,” he said. “And it can happen.”

What state officials consider a big fire here differs from what they say is a big fire on the other side of the Cascade Range.

“On our west side we don’t see as large of fires compared to the east side,” said Josh Clark, a meteorologist at the Department of Natural Resources. “A 200-acre fire on the west side may be a large size — especially since there’s lots more people and infrastructure to interact with. A 5,000-acre fire on the east side is a large fire.”

People ignite the majority of fires in Western Washington, whereas lightening is the main cause in the east. Wildfires on the west side, a region with high humidity, thick vegetation and steep terrain, behave differently from those on the eastern terrain.

Deb Roy, fire staff officer for the Gifford Pinchot and Mount Hood national forests, said Western Washington lacks the east’s vast remote areas, so when a fire starts, firefighters can respond quickly and usually prevent the blaze from growing.

“I think that makes a big difference,” she said.

Still, with the driest part of the year upon us, the public should be cautious.

With temperatures forecast to be in the 90s, federal, state and local fire officials are reminding people to remain vigilant and make sure fires are put out. While temperature, humidity and wind all play a part in fire risk, Clark County Fire & Rescue spokesman Tim Dawdy said that what he worries about the most is wind, which is not easy to predict.

“That’s when a backyard burn pile can turn into a disastrous fire and burn down a neighborhood,” he said.

Reporter Emily Gillespie contributed to this story.