Hot and Hazy: Central Washington Wildfires Muddle the Puget Sound Skyline

Smoke from Central Washington wildfires is dimming the horizon throughout Washington today, obscuring the crispness that is so common on a sunny summer day in Seattle. It also raises air quality concerns throughout the region and provides a clear example of the links between forest management, pests, and climate change in the forests I cherish.

Downtown Seattle skyline on clear day and a day hazy due to Central WA wildfire
On a clear, summer day, downtown Seattle appears etched into the skyline (left), but Central Washington wildfires muddle the view today (right). Credits: Cierra Hunziker, Patricia Tillmann.

Wenatchee wildfires have near- and far-reaching effects

As reported on KUOW’s Weekday this morning, grassland and timber wildfires near Wenatchee have raised the Haze Index to a 6 in the area (listen to 1:00 to 11:33). The reduced air quality is a problem for sensitive populations such as those with respiratory conditions, as well as firefighters who are getting “kettle cough” from the smoke. Even in Seattle, Janet Pierce, Spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), suggested sensitive populations should be cautious about the air quality and check the news for updates (current air quality is also available from the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency).

Air quality is not the only issue facing those in the Wenatchee area. Many are worried about losing their homes and not receiving the proper notice to evacuate. Ms. Pierce assured listeners this morning that the Sherriff’s office is knocking on doors to notify those needing to evacuate. She also educated listeners about the three-level notification system used by DNR. It is a “Ready, Set, Go” system, where Level I means “Get Ready” and Level III means “Go.”

While I am reassured by the availability of warning systems throughout Washington State, I remain worried about the apparent increases in our region’s susceptibility to wildfire due to fire suppression, pests, and climate change.

Fire suppression, pests, and climate change exacerbate wildfire

Fire is a natural and necessary process in Washington’s forests, but forests in the Wenatchee area remain prone to excessively large or hot fires due to a history of fire suppression, pest management decisions, and other activities. Fire suppression allows dry underbrush, dead trees, and branches to build up on the forest floor, providing more than adequate fuel for fires and increasing the probability of fires that are larger and hotter than they were in the past. Climate change projections for Washington, specifically projections of increased summer temperature and decreased summer precipitation (relative to 1916-2006), indicate:

 “Regional area burned is likely to double or even triple by the end of the 2040s, although Washington ecosystems have different sensitivities to climate and thus different responses to climatic change” (University of Washington Climate Impacts Group [CIG], 2009).

Pests such as insects are also a natural part of forests, but the increasing presence of invasive species such as spruce budworm and pine bark beetle can leave a large number of dead trees. As noted in a recently released study by The Nature Conservancy, these trees are quick to ignite in a fire, which can further exacerbate fire severity. With climate change, the vulnerability of Washington’s trees to mountain pine beetle outbreak is projected to increase, especially for pines and trees at higher elevations (see CIG study). In fact, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark issued Forest Health Hazard Warnings in response to declining forest conditions in several eastern Washington counties.

The risks of wildfire can be addressed with effective and proactive management

I know wildfire is a natural process and I appreciate its vital role in healthy forest and grassland ecosystems. But I also understand it puts homes and people at risk and that climate change, in combination with forest and pest management decisions, is projected to increase that risk. Fortunately, scientists and managers are working hard to come up with effective, proactive management strategies to help forest and grassland ecosystems, as well as the people and wildlife in those systems, adapt to a changing climate. Learn more at the CIG page and the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange.

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