The recent deadly wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tenn., demonstrated the dangers of extremely dry, windy conditions in a mountainous area with plenty of fuel.
The death toll reached 14, with more than 150 injured, in a worst-case scenario that is always on the minds of Washington officials during fire season, which generally runs from April to October.
Steep inclines and forests on the often rain-deprived east side of the Cascades make it more difficult for firefighters to gain access, and those areas frequently face the most risk, officials say.
“Everyone has a fairly elevated risk of wildfire just by the reality of the landscape,” said Wyatt Leighton, region manager for Wildfire and Forest Practices for the Southeast Region of Washington’s Department of Natural Resources. “It’s really a problem regionally. Some communities have done more work on the preparedness end of things to mitigate the risks.”
The department’s spokesperson for wildfires, Janet Pearce, said so much money must be spent fighting fires every summer not enough is left for prevention. While she’s noticed complacency can occasionally creep in when conditions become more favorable, the potential for future disaster keeps growing.
Gatlinburg’s population of nearly 4,000 at the 2010 census and status as a top resort destination made it a uniquely devastating location, leading to the evacuation of more than 14,000 residents, tourists and resort employees, according to news reports. But Leighton said it’s conceivable a fire in Washington could wreak serious havoc in a high-risk area such as the one surrounding Leavenworth, a popular city of nearly 2,000 modeled on a Bavarian village.
A map created by the department in 2006 identifies several areas in Central Washington at high risk for wildfires. Some work has been done in recent years to reduce fuel in forests and make them more resilient, but Leighton said the map remains accurate.
It shows significant chunks of “extreme fire hazard areas” near Cle Elum, north and south of Interstate 90. The interstate remains virtually surrounded on both sides by at least a “high fire hazard” all the way up to Kachess and Keechelus lakes, as well as just south of Snoqualmie Pass.
Leighton said towns such as White Salmon and Lyle near the Columbia Gorge could be vulnerable, and even some land near Yakima appears especially prone to fires. The map shows the most risk southwest of the city, beginning west of Stone Road and getting worse near Slavin Road in the Tampico area, north of South Fork.
Other high-risk areas include the Nile Valley along Highway 12 and particularly 410, all the way up to the edge of Kittitas County and the start of the Chinook Scenic Byway. Yakima County Emergency Management Director Scott Miller and Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest public affairs specialist Robin DeMario encouraged landowners to follow firewise.org safety guidelines where homes meet the forest.
“Those people that live more up on Highway 12 and 410 and in the woods, they are more at risk in that they tend to have more trees and wood up against their houses and less defensible space,” Miller said.
Leighton said the irrigated agriculture in the Kittitas Valley stands out as one of the lower-risk areas down in the valley floor. But in nearby higher elevations the risk increases dramatically, including a large “extreme fire hazard area” just south of Ellensburg on the opposite side of the Yakima River.
The “extreme” risk area northwest of Ellensburg was part of the site of the 2011 Taylor Bridge Fire, which destroyed 61 homes and more than 100 other structures. The Chelan Complex and Okanagan Complex fires farther north caused even more damage in 2015, the worst fire season in state history, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Looking forward, fighting back
Miller said with the nature of how fires get started, and because much of the topography in Yakima County is the same, fires can happen just about anywhere.
Data from the Department of Natural Resources on all fires since 1970 prove that to be true. Dots representing fires appear to know no boundaries, and large fires since 1973 — defined as those covering 100 acres or greater in timber and 300 acres or greater in grasslands/rangelands, or with an Incident Management team assigned to it — touch many locations.
But the vast majority of the region’s wildfires reported by the department in the last 36 years occurred in or near the high and extreme risk areas of western Yakima County. Most were labeled as either “recreation” or “lightning,” although a few are “arson” or “miscellaneous.”
“Most of our fires are human-caused,” Pearce said. “But the lightning bust, it can get up high in the hills, so people don’t see it.”
DeMario said more than 58,000 recorded lightning strikes helped make the dry 2015 summer even more destructive. Still, Pearce said for the same year humans caused 1,084 Washington wildfires compared to just 457 caused by lightning. Tennessee police arrested two teenagers in connection with the human-caused Gatlinburg fires.
Pearce said her department will be asking the Legislature for more financial help to pay for firefighters and engines, as well as proactive measures such as improving the health of the forest. Approximately 18 Washington counties will receive grants of up to $15,000 through the state’s Firewise program, and Leighton encouraged people to call the Southeast Region headquarters in Ellensburg for assistance in making their homes safe.
Locally, Yakima County Fire District No. 5 Deputy Chief Kevin Frazier said his district fights an average of 300 wildfires per year in Yakima County. He said he would love more volunteer firefighters, with the greatest need on the west side, from Toppenish toward White Swan.
The 2016 season proved to be pleasantly mild throughout the state and Yakima County, even though it produced the Range 12 fire, one of the worst in Washington all summer. The wind-driven fire burned more than 176,000 acres but didn’t damage any structures thanks to what Miller called “heroics” from local firefighters. And the county still didn’t need state mobilization efforts intended for districts that have exceeded their resources.
DeMario said spring precipitation will determine the severity of next year’s fire season, so it’s too early to try to make any predictions. Whatever happens, Pearce emphasized safety and vigilance with a changing climate and more people moving toward the woods or open rural areas.
“We haven’t seen the worst yet,” Pearce said. “If we have more droughts, fires are just going to grow larger and burn longer.”