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WA lands chief: State just had one of its ‘most challenging’ fire seasons ever

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz speaks to reporters at the Department of Natural Resources hanger at the Olympia Regional Airport. She recapped this year’s fire season, which had high fire starts but few acres burned.
Laurel Demkovich/Washington State Standard
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz speaks to reporters at the Department of Natural Resources hanger at the Olympia Regional Airport. She recapped this year’s fire season, which had high fire starts but few acres burned.

After an abnormally hot and dry summer in Washington, some in the state may say it was good fortune there weren’t more large wildfires or that the fire season wasn’t that bad.

But fire officials don’t see it that way. In fact, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said this year was one of Washington’s “most challenging” fire seasons yet.

The state had 1,880 wildfires, the second-highest number on record. Only 165,000 acres burned in those blazes, though, well below the yearly average of 470,000 acres. And about 95% of fires were kept under 10 acres.

While those overall statistics are somewhat positive, parts of the state did suffer catastrophic fires this year.

The two biggest, the Gray and Oregon fires in Spokane County, burned more homes than any other fire in state history, according to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office. Together the fires destroyed 369 homes and damaged another 447. The two fires, which spread from Aug. 18 to Aug. 25, also killed two people.

There are also troubling signs that fires are becoming more common in western Washington.

‘It wasn’t luck’

Franz credited her department’s wildfire fighting and forest management practices for keeping this year’s fires contained. She also attributed the department’s success to spending lawmakers approved in recent years.

Legislation passed in 2021 set aside $125 million every two years for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience – the most significant investment into the state’s wildfire programs in recent years.

The bill allowed the Department of Natural Resources to hire more firefighters, expand their air fleet with more modern planes and purchase new ground equipment that can help fight fires, such as bulldozers and excavators.

It also gave the department funding to invest in local efforts to reduce wildfire risk, such as clearing vegetation, doing prescribed burns and retrofitting buildings and homes to better withstand wildfires. The money will also help speed up the department’s 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which treats the state’s forests so they are less likely to burn.

“It wasn’t luck that left us with blue skies most of the summer and early fall,” Franz said Wednesday. “It was leadership.”

Franz also pointed to partnerships with local fire departments and other state and federal agencies as reasons for such low acreage burning.

Central Mason Fire and EMS Chief Brandon Searles, who helped lead efforts to put out the McEwan fire in Shelton, said the partnerships with other local districts and the Department of Natural Resources are “invaluable.”

The fast-moving McEwan fire did not result in any structural damage or injuries.

“We couldn’t have fought this fire alone,” Searles said.

West side fires

For the first time in state history, more than half of fires on Department of Natural Resources lands this year were in western Washington, a concerning sign for the future. Historically, large fires on the wetter, cooler side of the state have been rare.

Franz pointed to climate change as one of the biggest drivers for more frequent west side fires.

She said Washington will have to adapt to the changing landscape by implementing a forest health strategy in western Washington, teaching residents about how to avoid accidentally starting fires and improving emergency communication in communities at risk for fires.

“It’s a wake up call for every corner of Washington,” Franz said. “We’ve been saying for a long time that every year the risk to homes and the risk to communities continues to grow.”

Franz said the department will continue to improve its technology, including by installing artificial intelligence cameras across the state that can detect when fires start and notify responders.

She said she will also keep pushing the Legislature to fund additional equipment, firefighters, partnerships with local fire districts and a program that helps homeowners make their property more fire-safe.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.