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Early Season Fires In Northeast Washington Don't Mean Much For Upcoming Fire Season

File photo of the the Cornet-Windy Ridge Fire in Northeast Oregon in August 2015.
File photo of the the Cornet-Windy Ridge Fire in Northeast Oregon in August 2015.

Washington’s Department of natural resources responded to small wildfires in two of the state’s northernmost counties this week. But land managers don’t believe the blazes are harbingers of what’s to come just yet. 

Heavy spring rains have helped plants that grow on the forest floor flourish. All that plant material makes for a big fuel load. And that could mean catastrophe fires if the weather heats up quickly. 

“Right now it’s setting itself up to be what I would consider to be a normal fire season,” Washington Department of Natural Resources Wildland Fire Chief Bob Johnson said.

For now, he’s keeping an eye on snowpack that remains at higher elevations. 

“If it comes off quickly, we can in fact get ourselves right back into fire season sooner rather than later,” Johnson said.

Johnson said timing is key. He said DNR is preparing for fires this summer based on lessons learned from catastrophic fire seasons in 2014 and 2015.

Chuck Hersey, the acting forest health program manager for DNR, said heavy spring rain could actually help trees in Eastern Washington. 

“From a forest health perspective, when you’re talking about damage from insects or diseases… more rain is better than less,”: he said. “Trees typically demand a high amount of water and lot of forests in Eastern Washington are water limited, so having a good wet spring… will be good for the trees.” 

Hersey said too much wet weather can affect trees’ needles and leaves. However, he said, even if the added moisture helps individual trees this year, the fundamental forest health problem that plagues Eastern Washington’s forest is unlikely to change in the short term. 

“Our forests are a lot more dense than they used to be, when fires were historically coming through more frequently,” Hersey said.

That means trees are generally more stressed, making them ripe for insects and diseases. He pointed to fire suppression and changes in species composition as reasons for declining forest health.

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network

Emily Schwing
Emily Schwing comes to the Inland Northwest by way of Alaska, where she covered social and environmental issues with an Arctic spin as well as natural resource development, wildlife management and Alaska Native issues for nearly a decade. Her work has been heard on National Public Radio’s programs like “Morning Edition” and “All things Considered.” She has also filed for Public Radio International’s “The World,” American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” and various programs produced by the BBC and the CBC. She has also filed stories for Scientific American, Al Jazeera America and Arctic Deeply.