Wildfire smoke has darkened skies and even scattered ashes in neighborhoods throughout the Puget Sound region. The orange-tinged light has an eerie glow that has many people wondering what on earth is going on? How bad is this year’s fire season and how is it different than previous years?
It turns out, aside from the smoke lingering for a long time west of the Cascades, fire season 2017 is not that exceptional.
“These fires by historical standards are not that large,” said Dave Peterson, with the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the US Forest.
He says fires currently burning in Oregon are considerably larger than the five major fire complexes identified in Washington State. The largest is the Jolly Mountain Fire near Cle Elum, which as of Tuesday afternoon had grown to about 21,000 acres.
Compare that to the biggest recent fire year in Washington, 2015, when over a million acres burned.
“We aren’t anywhere near that this year,” Peterson says. “But when you’re surrounded by smoke, it doesn’t make much difference.”
In contrast, British Columbia has seen an extreme fire year, particularly on the east side of the province, Peterson says.
“Because they had been without large fires for so long that the fuels had built up,” he said, noting that a fire very difficult to suppress once a blaze starts under those conditions.
Peterson says in both places, controlled burning would reduce the risk of more severe fires in the future, and the authority is in place to do so. But resources are lacking.
“So we can go out there, we can thin forests, we can reduce the surface fuels, we can use prescribed burns to reduce fuels. And we do that every year and have been doing it for a long time," he said. “The challenge is to do that at a large enough scale that is actually makes a difference.”
He says there’s not enough funding for the millions of acres that need it.
“So we’re always kind of behind the curve in trying to accomplish this chore of fuel reduction.”
With no rain in the foreseeable forecast, Peterson says 2017’s fire season could go on for a while. But it’s still not likely to reach the size and severity of 2015.
However, as the climate warms, he does expect more extreme fire years like 2015 in the future.
“By the end of the century, that kind of a fire season could become the new normal,” Peterson said.