Officials predict early fire season in Columbia Basin

By Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldMay 12, 2013 

fire grass cheatgrass field wildfire kennewick

Kennewick Firefighter Kim Pauley mops up at a half-acre grass fire on Friday at West 21st Place and Rainier Street in Kennewick. "It's like being in August, fuel-wise," says Kennewick fire Batallion Chief Tod Kreutz of the very dry conditions. The Friday fire was apparently caused by a lawnmower possibly hitting a rock and creating a spark. Kreutz says that people should be aware that anything mechanical can potentially start a fire in dry conditions.

KAI-HUEI YAU — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

While Tri-City fire departments are preparing for an ordinary fire season, weather officials believe the lack of rain and snow this year may keep fire crews busier than expected in the Columbia Basin.

Recent warm weather is drying out grasses and brush quicker and may make the official fire season begin earlier than expected, according to the National Weather Service in Pendleton.

"We are 50 percent below normal for how much precipitation we normally have," said Rachel Trimarco with the weather service. "We are expecting quite an active fire season."

Typically, the fire season runs from the beginning of June to the middle of October but could start about a week earlier, she said.

Elsewhere in the west, fire officials already are fearing a severe fire year. A 28,000-acre fire that started recently in Southern California's coastal mountains burned about 25 buildings and threatened 4,000 homes.

But Mid-Columbia fire departments say they're preparing for a normal fire season even with the low precipitation.

"We are always going to be dry here," said Deputy Chief Mike Harris with Benton Fire District 1.

Because the Columbia Basin is hot and dry on a regular basis, it doesn't have extreme droughts and crews commonly deal with dry conditions.

The fire danger level for Benton County was recently moved to "moderate" as the moisture in the vegetation continue to drop and the weather heats up.

If the weather continues to stay warm, the danger level may be moved up to "high" soon. The forecast shows temperatures early this week in the mid-70s, rainy and windy, according to the National Weather Service.

The tricky part in predicting the fire season is not what the weather will be like, but rather where the ignition sources that start the fires will come from, Harris said. Most natural fires are started unintentionally by people, he said.

"The crystal ball is what activity will start the next fire," he said. "We tell people to be cautious when they are going outdoors and try to have their activities done before 11 a.m."

The lack of rain has led to shorter grasses, which could potentially help reduce the number of fires and make natural fires that do start less intense, Harris said.

Harris encouraged residents to make sure they are cutting open lots of grass on a regular basis to help prevent wildfires from spreading quickly to homes.

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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