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Will the Inland Northwest's cool, wet spring lead to a calmer wildfire season? | 2023 Wildfire Forecast

The answer? Yes and no.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Believe it or not, wildfire season is here.

The Inland Northwest's icy, cold winter and cool, wet spring make it hard to believe it's already time to prepare for wildfires. However, they also brought on questions about whether it will have an impact on this year's wildfire season.

The answer? Yes and no.

"The trends over the last 10 years have been towards more severe fire seasons due to hotter and drier summers," said Matt Dehr, the lead meteorologist and RAWS program manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

When talking about a "normal" wildfire season, it means something different than it did 10 years ago. Hotter, drier summers equate to more devastating fire seasons because that pattern dries out potential fuel, such as grass, trees and brush.

2022 seemed like an especially calm fire season, especially in recent memory. In the big picture, though, it wasn't as quiet as it may have seemed.

"In Washington, we still burned about 170,000 acres, which, compared to the last 10 years, is about 200,000 acres below normal," Dehr said. "However, if you look at average acres burned between 1992 and 2010, in that timeframe, we only burned about 143,000 acres per year."

The average fire season now burns more than double the acres in Washington than it did 10 years ago, a trend we're seeing across much of the western United States.

Right now, things are looking good. The cool, wet spring gave life to the snowpack and filled the vegetation with moisture. That means the potential wildfire fuels are harder to ignite.

For now.

Forecasts indicate below-normal fire activity across the Northwest through the start of summer because of the cool, wet spring. In general, however, summers have been hotter and drier, meaning fuels become more prone to ignition. What might typically burn and be manageable fire will instead have the ability to spread faster and burn hotter, becoming more devastating.

2023 looks to be no exception to the recent pattern. We currently sit under an El Niño Watch with more than a 60% chance of an El Niño forming by July. That would mean an even hotter and drier second half of summer.

It essentially boils down to what starts the fires. Historically, lightning is responsible for some of our larger wildfires in the Northwest. Lightning strikes in remote areas can spark fires that are hard for crews to access, allowing the fires to grow more freely.

As storm activity calms later in the summer, it's all on us.

The primary ignition source in the Northwest is humans. That includes things like campfires, fireworks, cigarettes, powerlines, tow chains on trucks and more.

Additionally, the eastern foothills of the Cascades are becoming a concerning spot year over year, experiencing more frequent and destructive wildfires.

There's no crystal ball that can predict how many fires we will see or where they will be. What we do know is fire season is getting worse and our hotter, drier summers are playing a big role. 

It comes down to fire weather days. Hot, dry and windy days are when we see most fire ignition and growth. By exercising caution on extreme fire danger days, we can make a difference.

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