Wildfire threat in Northwest rising with temperatures


Associated Press
King 5 News

SEATTLE, WA- The recent dry weather and low winter snowpack have created an above-average risk of major forest fires in Washington and Oregon, according to a wildfire forecast due to be released this week at meeting of western governors.

The fire danger is higher on both sides of the Cascades, with northeast Washington the only area where the risk is considered to be average.

"It looks like we will get a little precipitation in June but not nearly what we should expect, and when you get that dry weather it really accelerates the fire season," said Paul Werth, a federal fire-weather program manager at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

The center, based in Portland, provides logistical support to federal and state fire and land-management agencies in Washington and Oregon.

David Widmark, a spokesman for the center, said its wildfire forecast is scheduled to be released at a meeting of the Western Governors' Association, which begins Tuesday in Missoula, Mont.

The fire forecasts began in 2000 to help prepare communities and firefighters. So far, they've been reasonably accurate, Werth said.

The ratings have three levels of risk: below average, average and above average.

In Washington last year, only the Okanogan National Forest had an above-average fire risk.

About 80,000 acres burned in big blazes in the state, a fraction of the nearly 7 million acres of private and public land that were seared nationwide.

In Western Washington, the spring weather has swung between dry heat and cool, wet weather. Substantial moisture remains in the forests, and the fire threat is not expected until late summer or early fall, Werth said.

Early spring moisture also spread east across the Cascades, greening a lot of lower-elevation lands. But in many areas, rain slacked off in May.

"We've had a tremendous growing season, and now things are drying out awfully rapidly," said Doug Jenkins, of the Naches Ranger District in the Wenatchee National Forest.

A couple of small lowland grass fires have already flared. The major fire season could begin in weeks as the sun dries more lowland brush, and the snow retreats in higher elevations.

Summer fires are integral to wildlands ecosystems. But decades of fire suppression and logging have left many lower-elevation forests choked with small wood that triggers more intense burns, said Elton Thomas, the lead fire-management official for the Wenatchee and Okanogan national forests.

Of the more than 4 million acres in the Okanogan and Wenatchee, roughly 800,000 acres of lower-elevation forests are considered seriously overstocked and at risk of intense burns, Thomas said.


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