Wildfire concerns loom with dry weather outlook in Washington

Western Washington is starting off wildfire season on the wrong foot with dry spring conditions fanning the flames of what could another destructive season.

While the Puget Sound region experienced patches of rain last weekend, the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) noted that it was not enough to erase months of deficits, and drought conditions are expected to persist in Washington. According to the National Weather Service (NWS) in Seattle, this April has been 7th warmest on record, preceded by the 11th driest March.

Much of Western Washington is currently classified by the United States Drought Monitor as being “abnormally dry.”

“The start of the 2021 spring in the western U.S. does not bode well for the remainder of the region’s dry season. As the wet season in the West comes to a close, the U.S. Drought Monitor has never seen this level of exceptional drought in its 21-year plus history,” wrote NDMC Director Mark Svoboda in the agency’s quarterly newsletter.

Drought Monitor shows most of western Washington is experiencing abnormally dry weather.

Drought Monitor shows most of western Washington is experiencing abnormally dry weather.

National Drought Mitigation Center

While the historically observed impacts for D0 include a shortened ski season, regions in D1 in the eastern portion of the state will see increased wildfire risk heading into the summer. The Columbia Basin is currently classified as being in a severe drought (D2) with record-low precipitation in the region. 

While the map might be cause for alarm, it is not enough for the state to declare a drought. According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the state can only declare a drought if a region is receiving less than 75% of its normal water supply and water users in the region are expected to experience hardship accessing water.

But the dry conditions are a cause for concern for the upcoming fire season. Already the region has seen smaller, fast moving brush fires, including one near Auburn last week that burned over 50 acres and caused a level 2 evacuation. The cause of the brush fire was a burn pile that got out of control, prompting calls for residents to practice fire safety and comply with burn bans.


The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has already started preparing for the fire season and will eventually be bolstered by a bill passed during the 2021 legislative session that commits a total of $500 million over the next four budgets to boost wildfire response and forest restoration. The bill will also allow DNR to hire and train 100 new fire fighters.

However, the new funding will not be available until July. The legislation was a top priority for Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz following last year’s devastating wildfire season in which 812,000 acres burned across the state.

“In the face of an unrelenting wildfire crisis, our state is rising to meet the moment,” Franz said in a news release following the passage. “We are rejecting the notion that we must simply accept devastating fire seasons as a fact of life in Washington.”

Despite the dry forecast, the snowpack — which usually reaches it apex in early April — remains healthy, aided by winter snowfall. SNOTEL data from the Natural Resource Conservation Service reported that snowpack in north, south and central Puget Sound were all above 120% of normal levels as of April 1.

The Skagit River basin was at 119% of normal levels, and the Columbia River basin was above 118%, with some areas in the lower portion reaching highs of 134%.

A healthy snowpack is vital to life in the state: it irrigates both the Yakima and Columbia Basin and sustains surviving salmon runs in the Columbia River.



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