Governor issues emergency proclamation to prepare for extreme wildfire risk

With extraordinary heat and drought conditions across the state — and forecasts for more of the same — Governor Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark are taking steps to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Inslee Friday issued an emergency proclamation for all 39 counties, activating critical resources needed to prevent and contain expected wildfires. The emergency proclamation gives the Washington State Department of Natural Resources the ability to call on the resources of the National Guard and the State Guard on short notice to assist in responding to wildfires.

“The fire danger now is unlike any we’ve seen in a long time, if ever,” Gov. Inslee said. “We need to be prepared for the possibility of an unprecedented fire season.”

The declaration comes early this year in an effort to have firefighting resources ready to quickly mobilize and stamp out fire starts before they expand to larger wildfires. The order also empowers the Washington State Emergency Operations Center at Camp Murray to coordinate all incident-related assistance to the affected areas.

Last week, about 125 new Washington National Guard members received firefighting training in Yakima. Last year, more than 850 Guard members helped fight wildfires.

In addition, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark has banned all outdoor fires on Washington State Department of Natural Resources-protected lands.  The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission is likewise banning all campfires at state parks and on the ocean beaches Seashore Conservation Area.

This new burn ban, which supersedes DNR’s June 22 statewide burn ban, prohibits campfires in state forests, state parks and anywhere else on the 13 million acres of Washington forestlands DNR protects from wildfire.  It will be valid from today until September 30.

“The weather forecasts are pointing to a dangerous weekend, with an ominous fire-weather pattern that shows hot temperatures, low humidity and high potential for lightning and gusty winds,” said Goldmark.

“Our forests and grasslands are so dry that once a fire starts, it will be more difficult to suppress. We need to take all precautionary steps possible, and residents should do whatever they can to reduce the risk of human-caused wildfires,” said Goldmark.

The expanded statewide ban prohibits all fires, including wood and charcoal fires in designated campground fire pits or campfire rings.  Gas and propane cook stoves are allowed. Fireworks and incendiary devices, such as exploding targets, sky lanterns, or tracer ammunition, are always illegal on all DNR-protected forestlands, including state parks.

The DNR burn ban does not cover federal lands such as national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges or other areas administered by federal agencies. It also does not cover county and municipal parks. Visitors to national, county and city parks should contact the park for specific restrictions on campfires.

The Governor and Commissioner are also urging people to limit their use of fireworks, or forgo fireworks completely.

“Fireworks, while often part of our Fourth of July celebration, pose an increased risk with the extremely dry conditions we’re experiencing this year,” Gov. Inslee said. “We’re strongly urging people to not use them this year and celebrate in a different way.”

Residents are encouraged to contact their local officials to determine whether any city or county ordinances are in place that prohibit the use of fireworks.

DNR fire and forest health experts believe some of the uptick in the number of earlier fires is due to years of persistent drought on the east side of the Cascades, which have weakened forests and made them more susceptible to insects and disease. Ailing forests become flammable “tinder bombs” ready to ignite from a human-caused spark or lightning strike.

Over recent years, the state wildfire season has begun earlier and with greater intensity. As of June 23, there have been 313 wildfires across the state.  In 2014, by this date, there were 214 wildfires; in 2013 there were 169; in 2012 there were 155; and in 2011 there were 55 wildfires by this date.

DNR is awaiting legislative action on requests for $4.5 million for additional firefighting teams and equipment and $20 million to improve the health of drought-ravaged, flammable forests.

Last year’s fire season was the biggest on record in Washington, with the largest state fire ever — the Carlton Complex — destroying more than 250,000 acres. More than 1 million acres of Washington’s landscape has been consumed by wildfire since 2009.