Thursday, April 23, 2015

Greater risk of wildfires in Washington because of drought and climate change - air quality may suffer

Chiwaukum Creek wildfire, Washington 2014. Washington Department of Natural Resources. 
By Camille St. Onge, communications manager,
Climate Change and Air Quality Program

Warmer and drier summer conditions mean increased wildfire risk is projected for 2015, and climate change modeling indicates these conditions are likely to become the norm in the decades ahead. 

Weather models from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center show another hot and dry summer is forecast for Washington this year. And, climate scientists expect the area burned by fire each year to double in the Northwest by the 2040s. This not only puts Washington’s forestland at risk but air quality as well.   

“While wildfires obviously pose an immediate threat to human life, homes, property and forestland, they also cause less visible damage through air pollution,” said Stu Clark, air quality program manager for the Washington Department of Ecology. “Smoke from wildfires can cause respiratory problems across a much wider area than the fire itself affects.”

Less snowpack sets up wildfire conditions

The average snowpack measured on April 1 in the Cascade Mountains has decreased by about 20 percent since 1950. Climate models show declines in snowpack are projected to continue because rising temperatures will cause winter precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow. 

Already in 2015, low snowpack has reduced moisture in forestlands. Just last week Gov. Jay Inslee expanded the number of watersheds under the state’s drought declaration to 24, covering nearly half the state.

“The dry conditions are of concern throughout Eastern Washington,” said Clint Bowman, an atmospheric scientist with Ecology. “Summer thunderstorms will bring the threat of lightning-caused wildfires.” 

The Washington Department of Natural Resources has already reported 60 wildfires in 2015. That’s more than three times the average number of wildfires for this time of year. 

Air quality affected by wildfire smoke

Air pollution (PM2.5) levels recorded by Ecology.
In 2012, smoke pollution in towns and cities near wildfires, such as Ellensburg, reached hazardous levels, causing respiratory problems for many people in the community. Emergency room visits doubled and 3,400 school absences caused by health issues tied to the fires were reported in Chelan, Douglas, Kittitas and Okanogan counties.   

In 2014, the Carlton Complex Fire, Washington’s largest wildfire on record, swept through Eastern Washington. More than 425,000 acres of land burned, 320 homes were destroyed and smoke pollution reached unhealthy levels in many communities. Air monitors recorded spikes in air pollution over several weeks. In total, there were 88 days with unhealthy air quality levels during the 2014 wildfire season. That is more than three times greater than a typical year like 2011, during which 23 unhealthy air quality days were recorded.


Ecology has a statewide network of air monitors that operate year round measuring air pollution and often times more are deployed during wildfires. Visit Ecology’s air monitoring web page to see air quality levels in your community.    

The Department of Natural Resources is offering a series of wildfire preparedness meetings. These sessions will help property owners learn how to combat potential damage to land and homes from wildfires.

Other resources:
Washington multi-agency smoke information website

Washington Department of Ecology

Washington Department of Natural Resources

Washington Department of Health

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