The increasing fire risk tied to abnormally warm and dry weather conditions is igniting concerns statewide, including in Clallam County and Sequim.
Typically, the fire season for Clallam County is from July through the end of September, but “all bets are off this year” as the season is getting an early start, Bryan Suslick, Olympic Region Fire District manager with Department of Natural Resources, said.
“Clallam County has the highest existing risk of catastrophic losses in the event of a major wildfire in all of Washington and is fifth of 413 counties in 11 states in the western U.S.,” he said.
The number of costly homes built within the “wildland-urban interface” (area where the timberline connects with urban development) causes Clallam County to soar to the top of the charts when measuring the risk of catastrophic loss.
Despite the risks, Suslick acknowledges the option to live in forested areas is one reasons people like to live on the Olympic Peninsula.
Within the county, more than 13,000 homes were identified as being located in the area’s wildland-urban interface, according to 2009 Center of Excellence Technical Report at Peninsula College and Western Washington University Huxley College of the Environment.
Early fire season
Across the state, temperatures have been 5 to 15 degrees above normal, Scott Pattee, water supply specialist for Washington Snow Survey Office, said. The warm temperatures aren’t only pegged as the primary reason for the lack of snowpack in the Olympic Mountains, but also a contributing factor to the early fire season.
“We’ve gotten several months of really dry and warm weather sooner, so we’re starting to see fires sooner, too,” Suslick said.
In preparation for the fire season Suslick has seven engine crews ready. Normally, many of those resources are sent to eastern Washington to help manage wildland fires, but if “the predictions are right, resources are going to get spread pretty thin,” he said.
Like staff and officials with the Department of Natural Resources, Clallam County Fire District 3 is gearing up early for the anticipated fire season. Unlike some districts, District 3 has a wildland team prepared to fight fires in more remotes areas and three “brush vehicles” equipped with small water tanks and hand tools.
“We’re constantly training,” Roger Moeder, District 3 assistant chief, said. “We didn’t end up getting a crew put together, but we’ve already been asked to help respond to a fire in Spokane.”
Combating fires is a collaborative effort and because every area has a different fire season, crews from other states and surrounding districts are often able to help if needed.
Compared to Washington, Alaska and the East Coast burn early and are in the midst of their season, Suslick said.
Use of three helicopters and multiple crews consisting of more than 100 people are collaborating to control the Paradise Fire, a wildland fire in Olympic National Park along the Queets River that started in May after a lightning strike.
By the end of June, the fire had grown to more than 1,000 acres.
“It’s the largest fire within the park in the last several years and may grow to be the biggest fire Olympic National Park history,” Diane Abendroth, fire information officer with the Olympic National Park Service, said.
Normally the parks service tries to manage wildland fires naturally, but because of the regional fire danger park officials attempted to suppress the fire when it was relatively small. They were unsuccessful because crews weren’t able to keep it from traveling up steep slopes, Abendroth said.
Although the fire is located deep within the park and doesn’t appear to be a threat to any people or urban development, firefighting crews are attempting to contain it east of Bob Creek and north of the Queets River.
“It’s expected to run into natural boundaries, such as high elevation and rocky terrain,” Abendroth said. “It will take a lot of rain and likely snow to put this fire out.”
Throughout the summer, especially during dry, hot days with low humidity, smoke from the Paradise Fire is expected to continue and be visible.
The last six miles of the Queets River Trail is closed.
With the “driest May and June on record,” according to Olympic National Park Superintendent Sara Creachbaum, the park instituted a ban on open fires in the park’s backcountry, including the coast. Campfires are permitted only in established fire grates at established front country campgrounds. Camp stoves are allowed within the backcountry, but park officials urge careful operation.
Along with Olympic National Park’s increased fire restrictions, by the end of June burn ban and/or restrictions were implemented statewide by the Department of Natural Resources, Olympic National Forest Service, locally by Clallam County and within all Washington state parks.
“No charcoal or wood fires will be allowed even in state parks’ designated fire rings,” Don Hoch, Washington State Parks and Recreation commissioner, said.
Until further notice, only gas and propane may be used for cook stoves only.
Within the county, outdoor recreational fires are limited to 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet in height until Oct. 1. Restrictions may be upgraded to a “High Fire Danger” status which would prohibit all outdoor burning and includes recreational fires.
For those wanting to have a recreational fire, Moeder warns them to be aware of wind conditions, as even a small breeze can allow a fire to spread quickly and jump.
Although, City of Sequim officials haven’t imposed any special restrictions leading to July Fourth with the expected “long, dry fire season,” Moeder urges people to use good judgment, honor burn bans and only use legal fireworks in a safe manner.
Echoing Moeder’s concerns, Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict sent a news release reminding the public of the danger associated with fireworks.
“Irresponsible or careless use of fireworks over the Fourth of July could lead to catastrophic wildfires beyond our abilities to fight on the Olympic Peninsula,” Benedict said. “I have instructed Clallam County Sheriff’s deputies to have a zero tolerance for the use of illegal fireworks this year.”
If warmer, drier months earlier in the year become the area’s norm, city officials may have to evaluate changing the city’s code in relation to fireworks, Hugo said. The dilemma with implementing more restrictions, such as banning fireworks within the city limits, is the resources needed to enforce such rules once they’re made.
“Right now business is normal, but we hope people are considerate and safe,” he said.
Fireworks and what to know:
Allowed in City of Sequim:
– 9 a.m.-11 p.m., June 29-July 3
– 9 a.m.- midnight, July 4
– 9 p.m.- 11 p.m., July 5
Allowed in Clallam County:
– 9 a.m.-11 p.m., June 29-July 3
– 9 a.m.-midnight, July 4
– 9 a.m.-9 p.m., July 5
• Have water nearby
• Only let adults handle and light fireworks
• Read all directions
• Clean up after fireworks, soak in water in metal trash can away from infrastructures
• Top 10 signs that your fireworks may be illegal:
1. They were not purchased from a Washington State licensed fireworks stand
2. They were purchased through an online vendor, mail order or a listing on Craigslist
3. The person selling you the fireworks tells you he/she bought it in another state
4. They are not packaged in brightly colored paper
5. They do not have any safety warnings or instructions on the packaging
6. The packaging does not indicate the country of manufacture
7. It resembles a roll of coins with a fuse coming out the side
8. It is wrapped with plain brown paper
9. It is solid red, silver or brown in color
10. It looks homemade: wrapped in electrical tape and/or fuse isn’t taped down
— Information courtesy of State Fire Marshal Charles M. Duffy.
* Although allowed by the tribes, fireworks purchased on tribal property may not be legal in Washington and should be checked if the buyer intends to use the fireworks off tribal land, Roger Moeder, Clallam County Fire District No. 3 assistant chief, said.