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Shawn Vestal: It’s almost time for our fifth season

Shawn VestalMay 24, 2019

Who’s ready for summer?

Swimming, grilling, camping, coughing …

The anticipation is killing us. Will the kids be forced indoors for all of August? Will the dog days be bad for dog lungs? Will a red moon rule our nights? How many will get sick or worse?

Smoke season – that airborne adjunct to fire season – has become an entrenched part of our summers over the past decade. Our Augusts are marked by daily announcements about which outdoor activities are canceled. Daily health advisories about the current state of safety for breathing the air. Daily prayers for wind or rain to drive away the misery.

All indications point to more of the same this year. Much of the state is already in or near a drought that is expected to worsen in the coming months. Fire officials predict it will be hotter and drier than normal in June, July and August.

And, while wildfire danger is considered “normal” in and immediately around Spokane, it is higher than average over western and northern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana. This “red zone” of high wildfire danger also stretches, unbroken, from the top of Washington to the tip of California, according to the Northwest Interagency Communication Center, which oversees and manages firefighting efforts in Washington and Oregon.

All the conditions are right, in other words, for another hacking, coughing, itchy-eyed August – and that’s what awaits the lucky ones who aren’t directly in the path of fire. The key factors determining how bad this year will be are, as always, how much lightning and human idiocy we’ll have. We usually run a surplus on the idiocy.

Though there is variability year-to-year in wildfire seasons, the U.S. has experienced a sharp increase in acreage burned in recent years. The top five worst wildfire seasons since 1960, in terms of acres burned, have come since 2006; the total burned topped 10 million acres in both 2017 and 2015, according to the Congressional Research Service.

In the 1980s and ’90s, it was not unusual to see fire seasons that burned 1 million or 2 million acres; 5 million was a bad year in that era.

Though last year’s acreage (8.7 million) was down slightly from recent peaks, it was the most expensive year on record for fire suppression efforts by the Forest Service and Department of Interior, at more than $3 million.

Meanwhile, state firefighters answered more calls for blazes than any other year but 2009, according to the Department of Natural Resources, which asked the Legislature to double its budget in the upcoming biennium.

“Smoke from (last) year’s fires at times gave Washington the worst air quality in the world,” the DNR said in a report on its budget request for the next two years, “and numerous fires forced families to evacuate their homes.”

The underlying reasons are well-known. Climate change has brought hotter temperatures on average, drying out the forest fuels as well as changing what is growing in our forests; and there are more forest fuels – undergrowth and grasses – in the woods as a result of changes in forestry practices.

A study published in 2016 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that human-caused climate change has been responsible for doubling the area that has been burned by wildfires in the past three decades. A University of Idaho professor, John Abatzoglou, was a co-author. The study said that, since 1984, higher temperatures and the resulting forest aridity caused fires to spread over 16,000 more square miles (10,240,000 acres) than they would have without the warming.

Our future isn’t looking any more clear-skied.

“No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear,” said Park Williams, a Columbia University bioclimatologist who was Abatzoglou’s co-author, in an interview at Columbia’s Earth Institute website. “Climate is really running the show in terms of what burns. We should be getting ready for bigger fire years than those familiar to previous generations.”

Bigger fires, more smoke, increasingly tubercular Augusts.

Put it on the calendar. It’s our new fifth season.

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