Northwest Fire Season: Plenty of Blazes But Total Area Burned Much Smaller Than Recent Years


The Palmer Fire in northern Okanogan county took off Tuesday, a hot, dry day that unleashed a fast-moving blaze that has grown to more than 11,000 acres and destroyed some 30 structures in a sparsely populated rural area of homesteads and vacation properties.

"We saw [fire] spotting that would go a quarter to a half mile in front of the fire," said Isabelle Hoygaard, public information officer for the state Department of Natural Resources. "It was extreme enough ... behavior that we had to disengage the crews for their safety."

The Palmer Fire offers a sharp reminder of how quickly a small summer blaze can leapfrog in size. But so far this year, most of Oregon's and Washington's 2,611 wildland blazes have stayed small. They have averaged fewer than 25 acres and collectively burned, as of Friday, fewer than 61,000 acres, according to an analysis of statistics from Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

That is a big acreage decline from 2018, when fires, by Aug. 21, had spread through 529,291 acres in the two states, and polluted Seattle's air with smoke.

In August, fire activity in the Northwest has picked up. There are more than 20 fires in Oregon and Washington burning in at least 100 acres of timber or 300 acres of grass or range land, according to the coordination center.

This fire activity is relatively tame compared to California, where this week winds and searing triple-digit temperatures combined to push flames through 771,000 acres, destroying hundreds of buildings.

To assist California, Washington's Emergency Management Division has pulled together three strike teams with a total of 15 engines and 61 personnel from more than a dozen agencies that include Duvall Fire, Kirkland Fire Department, Shoreline Fire Department, Snohomish County Fire District & and Skagit County Fire 13.

The teams being sent to California are typically used for urban and structural fires. All wildfire teams and their equipment are remaining in Washington, according to Karina Shagren, communications director for the Washington Military Department.

Many of those California fires were caused by lightning, and more dry lighting is in the forecast for that state. "The weather conditions have not been working in our favor," said Daniel Berlant, of Cal Fire, in a Friday video briefing.

In Oregon and Washington, lightning strikes this summer have been far below long-term averages, and that has helped to reduce the risk of big fires, according to John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager for the Portland-based coordination center.

In July, the coordination center tallied 3,762 lightning strikes across the two-states, which is far below the average of more than 23,280.

As of Friday, the center has tracked only 47 lightning-caused fires in Washington, which have moved through fewer than 600 acres.

Most of Washington's fires -- 1,097 -- have been caused by humans, and these fires have burned more than 26,320 acres, according to coordination center statistics. The Palmer Fire may also have been started by humans, as there were no reports of lightning in the area on the day it started, according to Hoygaard.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday declared a state of emergency as wildfires burned on the Olympic Peninsula and in Central and Eastern Washington.

As of Friday, Palmer was the top priority fire in the state, with dozens of people under a Level 3 mandatory evacuation and nearly 400 personnel assigned to containment and National Guard helicopters providing water drops. This year, as in years past, firefighters sleep one to a tent, but they are now spaced at least six feet apart to help reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

The fire is burning through some very flashy fuels that include grass, sagebrush and bitterbrush in a rugged mountainous area -- about seven miles southwest of Oroville -- near lakes that attract vacationers.

The fire crews have made significant progress building lines and conducting burnout operations. But wind gusts of up to 40 miles an hour are expected to cause problems for firefighters.

During the next week, the fire risks in the region are expected to moderate. A forecast through Thursday shows most of Oregon and Washington facing either a minimal or normal risk of large fires. A few areas will have elevated risk and no areas are forecast at high risk.