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‘Our wildfire seasons seem to be moving up,’ and officials fear another hot, smoky summer

Take a look back at the 2018 wildfire season in the western U.S.

The National Interagency Fire Center summarizes the wild fires that burned the U.S. in 2018.
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The National Interagency Fire Center summarizes the wild fires that burned the U.S. in 2018.

Say goodbye to the rain for awhile, because the next month is shaping up just like May 2018, which was one of warmest and driest months of May on record.

Forecasts released this week continue to point to another hot, dry summer with more water restrictions, wildfires and smoky skies — even on the normally soggy west side of the North Cascades.

Whatcom County saw an early season wildfire just Thursday, May 2, and the state Department of Natural Resources sent crews to fight a 1-acre wildfire that threatened two buildings in the South Fork Valley near Van Zandt, said Bobbi Cussins, deputy director of communications for DNR.

“Our wildfire seasons seem to be moving up,” Cussins told The Bellingham Herald. “DNR Communications is already gearing up to be on call. In March, we had 54 wildfires, and only one was in Eastern Washington.”

Meanwhile, the western North Cascades snowpack is among the worst in the nation, and rainfall since January is far below normal — despite a soggy April, which was the fifth wettest on record in Bellingham, according to National Weather Service records dating to 1949.

Total rainfall for the year is 10.25 inches and almost half of that fell in April.

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Smoke hangs in the air over Lake Whatcom in Bellingham in August 2017. Say goodbye to the rain for awhile, because the next month is shaping up just like May 2018, which was one of warmest and driest months of May on record. That could cause summer fire and smoke to be bad. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

But April’s rain only spurred new growth that could quickly dry into what firefighters call “grassoline” that feeds wildfires.

There’s no rain in sight for at least a week in Bellingham, according to the National Weather Service in Seattle, and long-range forecasts continue to show a warm, dry trend that could last until fall, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

Both the center’s one-month and three-month forecasts show a strong chance of above-normal temperatures and below-normal rainfall.

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The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise sees an active 2019 wildfire season for Northwest Washington. National Interagency Fire Center Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Further, the monthly drought outlook charts still show Northwest Washington as abnormally dry, with drought development likely.

Bryan Henry, assistant national fire weather program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said the lower snowpack will melt sooner and create volatile conditions in Northwest Washington.

“There is an area of concern, especially across Western Washington state,” Henry said in a video released Wednesday. “It is slightly intensifying there.”

In response to the melting snowpack, officials at the North Cascades National Park on Friday set limits on recreational uses around Ross Lake, which will be as much as 25 feet below normal levels for the entire summer.

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Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.
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