WENATCHEE—It’s been a fairly mild, wet spring and early summer, but full-season fire forecasts expect upcoming dry, warm summer weather could aggravate wildfires.
“Summers have been getting hotter and they have been getting dryer over time. All of that helps to increase the risk,” said Jonathan Fox, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Spokane. “Based on those long-range climate trends that we’ve been seeing, that would tend to give a little bit more gravity to the forecast.”
A robust fire season is correlated with hot weather and an availability of “starters,” according to Fox. Starts include lightning from dry storms, dry vegetation like sage brush and cheatgrass, and human interference from burnings.
“You want the real hot weather and you want just a few dry thunderstorms to get a really big fire season,” Fox said.
The current fire season has been “typical” for North Central Washington, according to Chelan County Fire Marshal Bob Plumb. The Wenatchee Valley has seen a handful of small fires this season already, including a 100-acre brush fire in No. 2 Canyon.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of it,” Plumb said. “Nothing’s really gotten super big. I’d rather not have a smoky season.”
The Chelan County burn ban is currently at a moderate hazard level, but that could change in the coming weeks, according to Plumb. Outdoor burning is prohibited in Chelan and Douglas counties except for residential fires or campfires in permitted areas.
Fox also warned that full-season fire predictions are just that: long-range forecasts do not always correlate to the actual weather. For example, last summer’s predictions were similar to this year’s, but the season was relatively mild for North Central Washington.
“Long-range weather forecasting is an imprecise science” Fox said. “These forecasts are far from foolproof.”
Here are three full-season fire forecasts that offer outlooks through August for the summer wildfire season.
National Interagency Fire Center Predictive Services
Fire forecasts for summer 2020 in Washington and Oregon are the worst in the nation, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) Predictive Services. The NIFC forecasts nationwide, full-season predictions and are updated monthly.
From June to September, above-normal, large-fire potential seasons are predicted for the two states as weather conditions are likely to be warmer and drier than usual. For North Central Washington, the NIFC reports above-normal fire potential for July and August. The forecasts are predicted to return to normal in September before the season changes.
European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts
Meteorologist and University of Washington professor Cliff Mass offers a milder prediction for the 2020 fire season. Mass is also a featured prognosticator on a weekly Pacific Northwest weather segment on KNKX public radio.
“There is no reason at this point to expect an unusual wildfire season over Washington State this summer,” Mass wrote on his personal blog.
Mass argues that the upcoming summer will see a normal fire season, based on long-range forecasts provided by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). Rather than focus on predicting temperature, which is the main focus for the NIFC Predictive Services, Mass focuses on precipitation predictions from the ECMWF, which indicate wetter than normal forecasts through July from the Cascades westward and normal conditions over the Columbia Basin.
National Weather Service in Spokane
The National Weather Service Spokane Quarterly Report released in early June predicts above-average temperatures and below-normal precipitation for the Inland Northwest in July and August.
The warm and dry weather outlook increases the significant wildland fire potential. Warmer, drier weather increases chances for flash fuel that acts as an easy fire starter. The National Weather Service also predicts that drought conditions will continue into the summer months across Central Washington, opposing the ECMWF prediction backed by Mass.