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News / Northwest

WA 2023 fire season a ‘wake-up call,’ DNR chief says

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: October 26, 2023, 7:31am

This year’s fire season was a challenging one but could have been much worse, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said at a news conference Wednesday.

Two of the most devastating fires in Spokane County history killed two people this summer. And — for the first time — more fires sparked in Western Washington than in Central and Eastern Washington combined, Franz said.

After an abnormally warm and dry spring, early wildfire outlooks showed the state of Washington lit up with above-normal fire potential through the summer months. But the total acres burned this fire season was well below average.

About 165,000 total acres burned, Franz said. That’s less than half of the 10-year average. Fire crews were able to keep 95% of the fires on state-protected lands under 10 acres.

Lawmakers in 2021 earmarked $500 million for wildfire prevention and forest health treatments such as prescribed burns. The legislation also secured money to buy more aircraft and train fire crews. Franz credited the legislation with funding the state’s forest restoration, wildfire response and community resilience.

The acres burned pales in comparison to the nearly half a million acres scorched in 2021 and the 842,000 acres burned in 2020. But the Gray and Oregon Road fires were the most catastrophic fires in Spokane County history. Two people died and an estimated more than 350 structures were lost. Together the two fires burned more than 20,000 acres.

“This fire season isn’t over for those who lost their homes and lost loved ones,” Franz said.

More than half of the fires on state-protected lands were in Western Washington, with many in densely populated areas, Franz said.

This May, Western Washington saw precipitation around 5% to 25% of normal. It was the second-warmest May on record.

“It is a wake-up call to Western Washington,” Franz said. “We need to be taking all steps necessary to be making sure we’re keeping our homes, our neighborhoods safe from fire and creating that defensible space. We need to make sure that we’re also doing the forest health work … as we’re seeing some of the significant challenges our forests are facing over here with the hotter, drier temperatures and the drought.”

Franz called for officials to develop a forest health plan on the west side and expand the network of AI-assisted cameras to detect wildfires in remote areas.

Climate change is certainly a factor, Franz said. Hotter, drier weather and longer periods of hot and dry are stressing the state’s trees.

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The west-side fires also illuminated new threats brought by climate change to the state’s hydropower production.

As the Sourdough fire tore through the North Cascades, 15 people and two animals evacuated their homes in Diablo, and Seattle City Light officials stopped generating power at two of the three dams. It was the second time a wildfire forced the utility to stop generating power.

Seattle City Light is now planning to raise rates in January to recoup millions of dollars it lost during a particularly poor year of hydropower, mostly attributed to dry, warm weather and the Sourdough fire.

The state Department of Natural Resources is responsible for protecting more than 13 million acres of private and state lands.

“I’ve heard actually from Western Washington … ‘Wow we got lucky this year,’” Franz said. “It wasn’t luck … it was leadership from our local fire districts and our firefighters and our fire chiefs, it was leadership.”