PENINSULA - If you grill burgers and brats these days on a backyard Weber in South Pacific County, you can expect a hefty fine and stern lecture.
Fire prevention officials recently enacted prohibitions against cooking with charcoal and starting beach fires, activities that produce burning embers. The loss of these summer institutions is the latest casualty in a battle with an ironically congenial climate - one that belies the serious threat facing the region.
South Pacific County Fire Chiefs issued a total burn ban last week, in answer to a mounting statewide crisis. A perfect confluence of heat, wind and drought have created the most dire statewide fire conditions in a decade, maybe longer. As Greg Sinnett, meteorologist for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) put it last week, "This is the worst I've seen it in my career, and I've been doing this for 30 years."
Annual threat of catastrophic fires usually hangs over the eastern two-thirds of Washington. But this year, the monsoonal moisture that bathes the western slopes of the North Cascades has evaporated in the face of unseasonably hot and uncharacteristically dry weather. The southwestern Washington coast is following parched suit.
"In the past we've had similar conditions," said Pacific County Fire Protection District (PCFPD) No. 1 Lt. Jacob Brundage, "but it usually doesn't happen till later. It's different this year; it started much earlier."
Dry conditions in Pacific County normally arrive on the wings of the east winds that blow September through mid-October. Combined with thermal lows, the east winds often provide the stunning weather that starts around the time of Rod Run and rewards the Peninsula for the cold, wet gloom of the winter ahead. Locals pay for the idyllic climate of early fall with heightened threat of fires. Dune fires notably though not exclusively occur at that time.
In 2003, temperatures have risen higher earlier and stayed longer than usual. Likewise, rain has fallen more intermittently and for briefer periods. Those climatic anomalies spell trouble for a region only teased by the precipitation for which it is famous.
"One day of rain, like we got last Saturday, does little to change the conditions," Brundage said. "What we need is sustained rains - a longer-lasting period of moisture."
"We get swamped with calls after a rain," said PCFPD No. 1 Administrative Assistant Cheri Jones. "People want to know if they can start burning outside again, one after the other asking 'Is the burn ban lifted?' They don't get it that one day of rain just isn't enough."
Officials are closely monitoring current conditions, measuring the fire threat with 1,000-hour heavy fuel moisture readings. According to that scale, which ranks the moisture held by wood 3-to-8 inches in diameter, "this year's summertime drying ran about 25 to 30 days ahead of the 10-year average." Brundage said it would take weeks of precipitation to bring moisture readings back into balance, a phenomenon the Peninsula is unlikely to see until late autumn or even the winter.
As the percentage of fuel moisture drops, the danger of fire rises. Fuel moisture levels last week fell below 20 percent, the line below which fire prevention experts generally agree most major fires occur. Last week's drop in the 1,000-hour scale, for example, precipitated the South County total burn ban.
"These precautions are to protect us from the most careless people amongst us," said PCFPD No. 1 Chief Thomas O'Donohue. "By imposing burn bans, we are making every effort to protect our community from this type of fire which is preventable with some basic precautions."
With the ban, local chiefs hope to stem the current trend: six major fires occurred in Pacific County in 2001, according to Jeannie Abbott, fire prevention coordinator for the Central Region of DNR; nine in 2002 and seven through the first seven months of this year. At the current rate, the county can expect another five fires by the end of 2003.
"Right now, we need the public's help to prevent vast portions of our state from going up in smoke," said Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland at a recent press conference, "endangering local residents and homes, killing wildlife and devastating critical habitat for years to come. Fighting fires is costly - and dangerous."
Brundage said with the increased number of calls this year, the district is already feeling the drain on resources. "The costs are mainly in overtime and replacement of equipment," said the lieutenant. "Chainsaws wear out and hoses, especially the lighter, single-jacket type (used for brush- and wildfires), burn through and need to be replaced."
Crews grow weary as the number of calls builds. According to PCFPD No. 1 personnel, many of the same DNR crew that fought the Loomis Lake fire for more than six hours in the middle of the night on July 31, for example, had answered the call to a garbage fire just two days before. Under the system of cooperation among Peninsula fire departments, it's not uncommon to see the same sweaty faces, volunteers and district firefighters, at fire after local fire.
The hotter fires spawned by drier conditions can cause more far-reaching damage to forests. A 1998 DNR review by scientists Dr. Richard Bigley and Sabra Hull, analyzed damage of hotter-burning fires, during which "minerals and nutrients are converted to gas or powdery ash and lost to the winds or dissolved in streams and leached away."
The study pointed out "some forest floors are better insulated against the destructive heat." The thick organic layers of Pacific County forests would protect them more than the thin layers at higher elevations, for example, but the effects of hot-burning fires would still take a toll on soil nutrients and plant vigor. "The amount of devastation that can occur from wildfires," said Chief O'Donohue, "can only be appreciated from witnessing the effects."
Those effects, fear state and local fire prevention officials, loom more likely at this moment than any time in the past decade. Some, like DNR's Sinnett, think we're in the worst fire-danger period in three times the decade.
"We're fully engaged - right in the middle of it," Sinnett said last week. "We're near the pinnacle of fire danger for the year."