Drought predicted for Olympic Peninsula

Local firefighters prep for wildfire season

Posted 5/1/19

The state Department of Ecology declared a drought in three Eastern Washington watersheds last month, and the Olympic Peninsula could be added to that list.

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Drought predicted for Olympic Peninsula

Local firefighters prep for wildfire season

Posted

The state Department of Ecology declared a drought in three Eastern Washington watersheds last month, and the Olympic Peninsula could be added to that list.

Drought has been declared in the Okanogan, Methow and Upper Yakima watersheds, said Jeff Marti, drought coordinator with the Department of Ecology.

The state’s executive water emergency committee and the water supply availability committee will be considering a drought declaration for the Olympic Peninsula on May 9 and 10, Marti said.

“Conditions across the state can vary, but over the past 90 days the west side has been on the dry side,” Marti said. “The Olympic Peninsula is probably around 50% of normal for rainfall.”

Snowpack levels in the Olympics are at 75% of normal, and 55% of where it was at this time last year, he said.

Washington experienced its fourth-driest March since 1895, according to the state Department of Ecology. Statewide snowpack recorded on April 15 was still below average for this time of year, about 82% of normal.

Declaring a drought would allow the state legislature to allocate money to the department of ecology for competitive grants for cities, water districts and tribes that need to do emergency infrastructure projects.

The last time there was a drought declared on the Olympic Peninsula was in 2015. Marti said the water levels aren’t as low as that year, but the forecasts are still significantly low.

The Elwha river, for example, is predicted to have its second-lowest water level in the last 70 years.

East Jefferson Fire Rescue is currently in preparation for the 2019 wildfire season, which Chief Jim Walkowski says begins earlier each year.

“If you look at when fire season is starting, it used to start in July and go until October. Now it is beginning in February or March and extending all the way into November,” he said.

In 2018, the first fire in East Jefferson County was at the end of May, Walkowski said. This year, the first one was on April 4.

That fire was on Center Road in Chimacum, where a property owner had been burning logging slash from a previous timber harvest. Wind dispersed embers from the burn to ignite additional timber and vegetation on a hillside.

Crews from EJFR, Port Ludlow Fire and Rescue and the Department of Natural Resources were able to contain the fire in 60 minutes, but it signified the beginning of what Walkowski is predicting to be a dry wildfire season, due to the low snowpack levels and low rainfall.

“Snowpack affects the amount of water in reservoirs, lakes and rivers, which we use for firefighting,” Walkowski said. “Last year was a historic year due to the quantity of fires. In 2018, 40 percent of the state’s wildfires were in Western Washington. That’s unheard of.”

To prepare for wildfires, East Jefferson Fire Rescue has begun public outreach to educate people in best practices for protecting their homes and minimizing risk.

“Not all of these fires are caused by mother nature,” Walkowski said. “In fact, most of them are human-caused fires.”

To become “fire wise,” Walkowski suggests paying close attention to the vegetation around your home, and creating defensible space zones.

Meanwhile, East Jefferson Fire Rescue crews are preparing by updating their equipment. Getting new wildland firefighting gear and tools is imperative for keeping firefighters safe, Walkowski said.

And to be able to fight brush fires more effectively, they are updating their smaller trucks to be able to carry more equipment and fight fires in a more aggressive way.

On June 1 and 2, East Jefferson Fire Rescue will join DNR and other area firefighters for a wildland field day, where they will participate in training for the upcoming wildfire season.

WILDFIRE LEGISLATION

The state senate considered but did not pass a bill that was drafted to help local efforts to combat wildfires in Jefferson County.

Backed by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who leads the state Department of Natural Resources, Senate Bill 5996 would have provided ongoing funding to address wildfires and forest health. Funds would be used to bolster firefighter training, add firefighters and equipment, and remove diseased and dying trees from millions of acres of Washington forests.

“Scientists and firefighters have given us the blueprint to reduce wildfires and reclaim our summers from smoke and flames,” Franz stated in a press release. The bill called for increasing the tax on premiums for property and casualty insurance from 2% to 2.52%. This increase would cost the average household less than $2 per month. That would have raised $62.5 million annually to fund wildfire suppression and prevention.

Wildfire suppression costs in our state have averaged $153 million per year over the past five years, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Walkowski says he was keeping his eye on the bill because it would have bolstered DNR’s firefighting force in Jefferson, Clallam and Greys Harbor counties.

“DNR has a lot of land to cover,” Walkowski said. “We partner with them to help with that, so the more resources they have, the better it is for our local communities.”

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