“The exhaustion hasn’t yet set in,” says Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. Her office oversees nearly six million acres of land across the state, including firefighting efforts across state, federal, tribal, and private land. And at this point, she knows a thing or two about when exhaustion comes.
“I’m going into my fifth fire season,” she says with grim determination. “I think five out of the last six years have been catastrophic fire seasons.”
We all recall the grey sooty air of last September, when Seattle was blanketed in thick smoke that turned the sun red and filled our lungs with the charred soot of deadly blazes. After that disastrous year, the legislature approved an additional $125 million for the Department of Natural Resources to upgrade its firefighting capabilities.
“That’s the good news,” Franz says.
But there’s also bad news. Of course, there’s always bad news.
“We’re always looking at the spring months,” Franz says. “Spring months can be telling of what’s to come, largely because the hotter and drier our landscape is, the more prone it is to fire. The sooner it dries out, the sooner it starts burning.”
The DNR firefighting crew is small — just 60 people, all doing the best they can. Seasonal firefighters will arrive throughout June and July, Franz says, but the real exhaustion happens “when you have month after month after month, and you can’t give your people the break they need. And when you have multiple fires in one day, many of them in the tens of thousands of acres burning literally overnight.”
On last year’s Labor Day alone, Washington saw 53 fires. Judging from the state we’re in as we approach Memorial Day, this year’s looking bad too.
“When we see this many fires, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the year,” Franz says. “We’re predicting it’s going to be another significant, challenging fire season.”
Making things worse: Although legislators approved $125 million for DNR’s firefighting, that money won’t become available until July. That means this year’s fire season will likely be over before they can hire and train more firefighters, get more aircraft, and upgrade their existing helicopters (they’re so old they can’t fly at night).
So that means that for the next few months, the burden of keeping fires at bay will be borne by the existing crews and the clunky old aircraft — and also by citizens across the state, from rural communities to big cities.
“Often when we see drought conditions it feels like it’s out of our control,” Franz says. “But there are two things people can do to protect themselves and prevent fires.”
The first is to be aware of the actions you take that could spark a fire. Franz says that humans cause ninety percent of Washington’s fires, from debris piles burning in yards to campfires and cookouts.
Homeowners can also take steps to create defensible space around their buildings: Clean out gutters, prune trees away from homes, keep the lawn green. (Or better yet, replace the lawn with something sustainable.)
If you’re driving into the great outdoors for Memorial Day, don’t park your car on dry grass, and don’t let chains hang down from your vehicle. Don’t bring fireworks or cigarettes. Thoroughly drown your campfires.
As we saw last year, fires are likely to have a major impact on our lives throughout the summer and into the fall. Now’s your chance to prevent it from being any worse than it has to be, and to prepare to protect yourself. No matter where you live, Franz says, “everyone is at risk in Washington State.”