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Washington National Guard and WA DNR preparing together for fire season

2019 season predicted to be similar to last year

Group photo of Washington National Guard members and civilian wildfire fighters working together at the Sheep Creek Fire in August 2018. Photo credit: Joseph Siemandel

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Spring time in Washington state means the end of the long gray days, no more snow and potentially less rain in the forecast. It is also when the Washington National Guard and Washington Department of Natural resources team up to proactively prepare for the upcoming summer wildfire season.

"We have made significant strides in building relationships with our DNR partners," said Brig. Gen. Jeremy Horn, Director of the Joint Staff. "Our guardsmen have an enthusiasm when working together to help our communities and neighbors."

On April 2, guardsmen, Emergency Management professionals and meteorologists and fire scientists from Washington DNR held the annual Fire Academy on Camp Murray to discuss the 2019 fire season.

Since 2014, more than 4,000 guardsmen have been activated to support DNR, including the record-setting 2014 and 2015 wildfire seasons.

"I saw our guys come back to the fire camp after a hard day at the Sheep Creek Fire, soot-covered and big smiles on their faces; they love helping their communities," said Horn. "This has become the new norm for them and they take that very seriously."

It's the new norm for DNR as well. In 2018, DNR held 200 courses, trained more than 3,300 students and issued nearly 7,000 Red Cards to firefighters across the state.

"Our goal is to keep 95 percent of the fires in the state to 10 acres or less," said Chuck Turley, Wildfire Division manager for DNR. "We were able to keep 93 percent at 10 acres or less."

Turley highlights that 2018 was different from previous years, with 40 percent of the fires in the state originating in western Washington.

"We never put aviation assets in western Washington during fire season and that changed last year," said Turley. "The season saw our assets spread further than before."

The outlook for the 2019 season is already being compared to the 2018 season, including an increase in fire activity in western Washington according to Josh Clark, a meteorologist with DNR.

"We are seeing above-average temperatures across Washington already, and a lack of precipitation," said Clark. "That mixed with low soil moisture levels could be bad for the 2019 season."

Clark said the state is already dealing with drought conditions on the Olympic Peninsula and across Whatcom and Skagit counties. Rivers like the Nooksack and Skagit are below normal levels for this time of year.

"We have seen a lot of the snow melt already, and with about 60 to 70 percent of normal precipitation, we are looking at a drier summer," said Clark. "It isn't about the temperatures in the summer, it is about how much rain and snow we get in the fall, winter and spring."

Given this information, Washington National Guard leaders are acting earlier than before. Since January, many guardsmen that have received their Red Card certification have completed their refresher course. The Washington National Guard's 96th Aviation Troop Command completed its water bucket recertification in March. Units have already begun to identify more than 150 guardsmen to conduct Red Card training in May or June, with the potential for more to be added to the list.

"We know it is not a question of if, but now a question of when," said Col. Kevin McMahan, director of the Washington National Guard's Joint Staff.

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