Wildfire Starts Are Up In Washington. COVID-19 Could Be To Blame

By Courtney Flatt (OPB)
June 26, 2020 1 p.m.
File photo of a brush fire burning in the Rattlesnake Mountain area of Washington's Tri-Cities region in 2019.

File photo of a brush fire burning in the Rattlesnake Mountain area of Washington's Tri-Cities region in 2019.

Producer: Sheri Whitfield / U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The number of wildfires burning across Washington has risen steadily over the past two years, but the 2020 core fire season is looking to pull way ahead in wildfire starts. 

And this year’s unprecedented uptick in the number of fires has an unforeseen culprit: people cleaning their yards during the pandemic.

Washington fire and land managers say they've seen a significant number of wildfires in "every corner of the state." So far this year, the state Department of Natural Resources said it has responded to more than 468 wildfires of varying sizes — nearly double the 10-year average for an entire fire season.

More than two-thirds have burned east of the Cascades. Most happened after people burned yard debris, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said Thursday.

Related: As Wildfire Season Nears, COVID-19 Raises Questions About Emergency Shelters

“Everybody is following the 'stay home, stay safe' order. They’re getting more time at home to do yard work. We’re seeing an unprecedented number of debris piles, and we’re seeing an unprecedented number of people that are lighting those piles on fire,” Franz said.

Franz said recent conditions have also been hot and dry, which makes outdoor burning more likely to start a fire.

New burn bans will go into effect June 26 on Department of Natural Resources lands in most of central and southeastern Washington.

The number of annual fires has been increasing over the past 10 years, according to DNR fire meteorologist Josh Clark. He says over the last decade, there were about 217 fires per year on DNR-managed land.

“We have just blown that out the water for the last three years running,” Clark said.

As of June 23 this year, there have been 325 fires on DNR-managed land. Clark said right now fire conditions are near normal, and conditions may be even more favorable than normal over the next month. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be fires.


“DNR will likely still see fires with incredible frequency, as more humans go out on the landscape, especially after coronavirus restrictions continue to be lifted and we get closer to the summer holidays and the like,” Clark said. “It’s just that we’re not expecting fires to get as large this year.”

Human-caused and 'mega' fires

Most fires on DNR-managed lands are caused by people.

Large fires are those that burn more than 300 acres in grasslands and more than 100 acres in forests, and are smaller than the so-called "mega fires" like the Carlton Complex in 2014 (it was started by a lightning strike).

Clark said it’s difficult to predict the number of mega fires that may happen in a given season, but he doesn’t expect this year to be catastrophic. (A DNR spokesperson crossed both her fingers on the Zoom call when this question came up.)

Fewer mega fires would be good news for officials developing plans to keep firefighters safe in fire camps and on lines this summer, where they'll have to contend with a deadly virus on top of their normal jobs.

Officials have moved training sessions online and have developed protocols for dealing with the coronavirus during fire season.

Related: Oregon Prepares To Fight Wildfire During Coronavirus Pandemic

DNR spokesperson Janet Pearce said fire camps will look much different this year. Firefighters will stay in motels when fires are smaller. When fire camps are necessary, they'll be smaller than in past years.

“We would have to scatter. We’d have to feed folks differently and probably use more local resources instead of our kitchens because we go through a buffet line,” Pearce said.

Fire managers will also reduce the number of people in fire engines.

State officials will require firefighters to wear masks while they’re in camp, in engines or on helicopters. The flammable masks can’t be worn on the fire lines.

Courtney Flatt covers the environment and natural resources for Northwest Public Broadcasting. She is based in Washington's Tri-Cities. On Twitter: