Hot, dry weather throughout the state of Washington created challenges during the 2021 wildfire season. The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NWCC), which provides logistical support, information and coordination regarding wildland wildfire management for Washington and Oregon, shared a video and one-page summary of the 2021 wildfire season this week.
The state experienced an early start to the wildfire season due in large part to low rainfall in winter and spring. In spring, wildfire experts predicted an above-average fire season because of the unseasonably dry start to 2021 and believed the wildfire season would be formidable due to weather conditions.
Washington state recorded the hottest and driest year on record. In addition to the heat wave in June, which recorded triple-digit temperatures throughout Washington, state officials noted that the intense heat throughout July and August often made wildfires harder to manage. Officials anticipate that as the state is likely to encounter more of the extreme weather experienced in 2021, future wildfires will in turn be more frequent and more destructive.
But despite severe heat and drought-like conditions, the 2021 wildfire season was not as devastating with human and property loss as in prior years. Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz credits the state’s ability to respond to wildfires more rapidly in part to the passage of HB 1168, which commits $125 every two years over the next four biennial budgets to boost wildfire response and accelerate forest restoration. These investments helped the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) address fires swiftly and attack smaller fires earlier to prevent many of them from growing into large-scale wildfires, she noted.
Said Franz to Spokane Public Radio:
“There were 1,750 fires. You’ve heard maybe 20 to 25 of those fires. The rest you never heard of because we used initial attack and put them out before they could get big. They were also instrumental in being able to get containment on those other, more significant major fires that we saw this year.”
Over the summer, DNR invested in additional air resources stationed at high-risk areas throughout the state. Among the DNR’s wildfire aviation response is a Boeing 747 airplane capable of dropping 19,000 gallons of water or fire retardant on wildfires. Franz said DNR will continue to add to the state’s aerial firefighting resources and hire more firefighters in the coming years.
“I was tired of being in the midst of these catastrophic fires and not being able to get any resources from the feds or other states because they’re already deployed in other states. So, I took the step of saying we’re going to be dependent on ourselves and we went from around 12 to 15 aircraft to around 35 aircraft by July. Those 35 air resources, they were under our exclusive control. They were ours to use. They were absolutely critical in making sure that this fire season was not more horrific than 2018 and 2020 and even 2015, when a million acres burned.”
2021 Washington wildfire statistics:
- A total 674,249 acres burned
- 88% (1,640 total) of Washington wildfires were human-caused
- 12% (232 total) of Washington wildfires were lightning-caused
- 44 Washington fires met the large fire criteria- described as fires larger than 1,000 acres in the western United States
- Burning a total 107,118 acres, the Schneider Spring fires was the state’s largest wildfire