WENATCHEE — North Central Washington dodged the bullet on large wildfires this summer, thanks to a little luck and a lot of effort.
And with the fire season all but over, firefighters are heading back out to the woods, this time to ignite controlled burns that may stop or prevent catastrophic fires in the future.
“They switch from fighting them to lighting them,” said Bobbie Scopa, fire management officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, as she sat on a hill Monday evaluating ignition of the Beehive Reservoir prescribed burn unit, near Mission Ridge.
To Scopa, a fire manager for decades, this is a surprising fire year.
In an extremely dry summer accented by three weeks of unrelenting lightning storms, firefighters managed to stop more than 100 wildfires from turning into large blazes, she said.
And by starting prescribed burns earlier than usual this fall, the Forest Service may purposely burn three times as many acres on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest than it lost in uncontrolled fires, she said.
Scopa said only about 10,000 acres burned across the forest this summer.
That’s quite a feat in a year when fire analysts had placed a bull’s-eye over North Central Washington as one of the most likely places in the country to experience large wildfires.
“Last spring, North Central Washington was dry, drier, driest,” due to the lack of snow last winter, said Dan O’Brien, fire analyst for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, Ore.
He said weather analysts also predicted lightning storms, and the combination is usually a recipe for huge, catastrophic wildfires. The fires came, but they did not get big.
“We had a lot more starts this year than an average year. Certainly greater than the last five or six years,” Scopa said of the wildfires that did ignite on the national forest. “But we caught the fires in those early stages,” she said.
“That translates to a huge cost savings to taxpayers,” she said, noting one large fire can cost millions of dollars to suppress.
Scopa said firefighters and other resources were available, since there weren’t major wildfires burning across the West during the three weeks in July when there was lightning.
She said five air tankers were stationed in Moses Lake for a short period, and smokejumpers and rappellers dropped into the forest 440 times during the stormy period.
She said the public also deserves credit for preventing human-caused fires.
With the majority of firefighting over, Scopa said controlled burning is off to a good start.
Flame height on the unit near Mission Ridge were 2- to 5 feet, which is just right for burning out the undergrowth and taking out small trees while leaving the large older trees unscathed, she said.
In the Naches Ranger District, the Forest Service started burning in August, while the nearby Discovery Fire still burned out of control.
“We’re trying to more naturally mimic natural fires that did the thinning, and trying to increase our window of opportunity,” Scopa said.
If resources are available for both initial attack and controlled burning, late summer can be a better time to conduct prescribed burning because it burns through the area more quickly, and because smoke tends to clear out of the valleys more quickly.
On Monday, the Forest Service burned between 100 and 200 acres near Mission Ridge, and about 125 acres in Benson Creek in the lower Methow Valley. Forest Service spokeswoman Robin DeMario said some residents reported the Beehive prescribed burn to fire dispatchers, thinking it was a wildfire.
Burning will continue in both areas today, and smoke may settle in the valleys, especially in the morning hours, she said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512