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Our wildfire season is not over, so be careful Labor Day weekend

After years of difficult wildfire seasons, Washington seems to be catching a break this summer. The state is also better prepared, thanks to a smart investment by the Legislature and robust prevention and response efforts by the Department of Natural Resources.

However, the season is not over, and as we move into Labor Day weekend, fire safety must remain top of mind.

“This year has been a real pleasant break, to be honest. We had a really wet spring, much cooler temperatures, and a lot of moisture that we’re not used to,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.

The year-to-date metrics are encouraging. As of Aug. 26, there had been 381 ignitions, the lowest number of fires started in a decade. Approximately 39,000 acres have burned, which is about 100,000 acres below the 10-year average.

Unfortunately, the benefits of a wet spring also mean taller grass that then dries out in the summer heat, creating what firefighters call “grassoline.”

“We don’t want people to forget how quickly things can dry out, how quickly a fire can get started, how quickly it can spread and how tragic it can be,” Franz said. “All we have to do is look to the 2020 Labor Day firestorm to remember what can happen in a very short amount of time.”

That year, forecast to have a significant fire season, got off to a slow start. By Labor Day, a windstorm fanned numerous fires across the state, causing more than 500,000 acres to burn in a 36-hour period, according to a DNR report. The Cold Springs fire claimed the life of a young boy and the Babb Road fire destroyed most of Malden and Pine City.

As climate change makes wildfire seasons worse — on both sides of the Cascades — the state must continue to step up its efforts. Last year, led by Franz and state Reps. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, the Legislature created a dedicated funding source for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience.

That investment has allowed the DNR to put 40 new wildfire dozers into service and enter into a purchase agreement for two new Kodiak multi-mission airplanes. It has supported the expansion of the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program, which helps make homes more resistant to wildfires, across Chelan, Spokane, Yakima, Okanogan, Kittitas and Klickitat counties.

The funding has also helped expand forest health and prescribed burn initiatives that are critical prevention measures, officials said.

Still, while the state has an important role to play, there is a responsibility that all Washingtonians share. While lighting strikes can be a factor, between 80% and 90% of all wildfires are caused by humans, including through unattended campfires and people burning debris.

The state is having its safest fire season in a long time. It is up to all Washingtonians to help make sure it stays that way.

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