NW View: Does climate change make Washington fires the new normal?

An airplane tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfire north of Twisp, Washington, Aug. 21, 2015.
An airplane tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfire north of Twisp, Washington, Aug. 21, 2015. Associated Press

The deaths of three specially trained firefighters in the Methow Valley elevated the state’s wildfires from catastrophe to tragedy Wednesday. A fourth firefighter, a young man from Puyallup, was grievously burned. The hearts of all Washingtonians go out to their loved ones.

Gov. Jay Inslee isn’t exaggerating in calling the 18 huge fires that are scorching thousands of acres, destroying homes and displacing scores of residents an “unprecedented cataclysm,” one that has “burned a big hole in our state’s heart.”

More than 450 square miles have already burned, compared to about 390 in 2014. In some cases, people evacuated from one fire zone are being displaced again when flames threaten their new location.

And the really scary thing is that there is little relief in sight from the weather, even as resources to fight the fires are stretched to their limits. Strong winds moving into the Okanogan and Methow valleys overnight were expected to just fan the flames that are already out of control.

With the West, and Washington, ablaze for the second straight year – and climate change expected to create hotter, dryer conditions in the coming years – is this the “new normal”? That’s how U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell described it Wednesday.

Calls for help in fighting the fires have gone out to the National Guard and even to foreign countries. Joint Base Lewis-McChord is sending 10 teams of 20 soldiers to Central Washington, the first time JBLM soldiers have been asked to assist at fire scenes since 2006. Local fire districts are sending personnel – if they can be spared, that is. Drought conditions west of the Cascades have greatly increased the fire danger here, too.

What can you do? First, don’t add to the problem by accidentally causing a fire. Just throwing a cigarette out the window can start a brushfire that eats up resources. It’s also important to be “firewise” and create what is called defensible spaces by keeping the area around buildings free of combustible material and vegetation.

Many evacuees are getting assistance from organizations like the Red Cross. People who are concerned and want to contribute should check out charities with Charity Navigator, charitynavigator.org, or the secretary of state’s office, sos.wa.gov/charities. Sadly, scam artists try to take advantage of good-hearted people in times like this. Make sure your donations are going to reputable groups.


This column reflects the views of the editorial board of the News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma.