Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest: By the numbers
Total acres: 4.4 million
WENATCHEE — In September of 2012, conditions were just right for a smoky mess.
The forest was dry. The air was stagnant.
And 4,000 lightning strikes were recorded on Sept. 8 in North Central Washington.
By the end of the month, 115,000 acres of forest and grassland had burned and residents were weary of breathing smoke — lots of smoke, enough to close Cashmere schools and prompt people of all breathing abilities to wear face masks.
Could it happen again?
Yes, says, a Forest Service official, but tons of smoke won’t be coming from the areas burned last year.
“Those areas will be low fire-risk for up to 20 years,” said Richy Harrod, deputy fire staff officer for the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest.
What’s at risk are thousands of acres elsewhere on the forest where fuels have built up and thinning and prescribed burns have not happened. .
And, yes, Harrod said, smoke from those areas could settle in the valley.
This all leaves Harrod wishing air-quality restrictions, set by the Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators, weren’t so strict. Ideally, many more acres would be burned in a controlled manner than the 9,300 acres burned last year.
To achieve a healthy forest, he said, the agency would have to burn “four times what we’re doing now.”
The situation, Harrod said, is “pay me now or pay me later. We either have smoke on Mother Nature’s terms, or we can do management, which is predictable.”
He noted that officials try to start prescribed burns in the spring and fall when there are no air inversions, and the smoke will clear rapidly.
Harrod said he thinks heavy rains in May should help lessen the length of the fire season.
“Spring rains usually push the fire season start further into summer,” he said.
“Soaking rains are important because they are wetting large logs and creating green conditions and keeping the soil moist and, hopefully, those moist conditions will last.”