State officials addressed the multitude of wildfires that began burning across Washington on Labor Day, telling the public that work was in progress to benefit recovery after hundreds of thousands of acres burned.
Gov. Jay Inslee led a press conference with other state officials Tuesday, Sept. 8, to lay out Washington’s current response for the fires that hit across the state, especially in Eastern Washington.
Inslee said 330,000 acres had burned statewide in the prior 24 hours, greater than any of the past 12 fire seasons in Washington. Acknowledging that the state has dealt with wildfires before, he said conditions were “unprecedented” due to both the heat and the wind.
Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said the current wildfire situation was her “worst fear,” pointing to the “heartbreaking and surreal destruction of the past 24 hours.” In that timeframe she said more than double the amount of acres had burned compared to the 2019 season, with the Cold Springs Canyon/Pearl Hill fires near Omak making up the lion’s share of burning at 280,000 acres.
Franz said there were 58 fires that started on Labor Day, the most of which she said were fortunately controlled, though nine significant ones were still burning in Eastern Washington. She said the “hurricane-force winds” were unprecedented, which grounded aerial firefighting efforts due to wind speed and lack of visibility.
Though with all the devastation brought by the fires, Franz said thankfully there were no reports of injuries or fatalities.
Franz said the state had deployed more than 1,500 firefighters and dozens of planes and helicopters to fight the blazes. Due to a lack of lightning in the areas of the fires, she said currently the state believes all of them were human-caused, though whether any were intentionally set was still left to be determined. Burning debris piles as well as vehicles parked on dry grass could be some of the conditions leading to fires starting, she said.
Inslee warned against Washingtonians doing anything outdoors that could lead to the potential of starting a blaze, commenting that “it’s not just fires, it’s literally sparks” that can lead to ignition of the surrounding area.
Franz announced the closure of all state Department of Natural Resources lands in Eastern Washington until at least Friday, when officials will reassess the situation. She added that current information didn’t merit the need to close Western Washington lands, though that could change in real time as conditions may change.
“This is not an Eastside-only issue, it is an entire state issue,” Franz remarked.
Inslee mentioned Malden in Whitman County which lost an estimated 80 percent of the buildings in the roughly 200-population town. Inslee said town officials told him the town “looked like a bomb had gone off,” losing the town hall, post office, fire station and most of the town’s homes.
Power outages also affected residents across the state, with Inslee saying about 100,000 were affected as of the press conference.
In Western Washington Inslee said two dozen fires were burning leading to hundreds of evacuations, asking those receiving direction from emergency authorities to heed those directions. He noted hot temperatures were expected for days to come, also acknowledging air quality issues that were a result of the blazes.
Inslee said he had directed the Washington Military Department Emergency Management Division and the state Department of Social and Health Services to determine what emergency proclamations the governor would need to make to expedite possible cash and food assistance to those affected by the fires.
Emergency Management Division Director Robert Ezelle said the state emergency operations center was at the highest level of activation with the goal of providing assistance to local jurisdictions impacted by the fires. He said the division had applied and received federal assistance for three of the state’s largest fires, though it was unclear if Washington would be able to receive any other federal help.
Inslee said it had yet to be determined if he would declare a state of emergency in Whitman County, adding that “you can be assured that if it would be helpful and if it qualifies, we will certainly make that recommendation.”
Inslee believed it wasn’t likely to be able to know how much aid could be given to address impacts from the fires by the end of the week, as the amount of damage took time to assess. Even with hitting damage thresholds for federal assistance, Inslee said that help was “less robust than a lot of times we would like,” adding it would focus more on public assets than private residences.
Inslee said the severity of the fires and its impacts were indicative of climate change, with drier conditions exacerbating seasonal burning.
“This is not your old Washington,” Inslee remarked.
Though the majority of fires that happened in the prior 24 hours were grassland, Franz said there was some timberland in those areas, highlighting ongoing efforts to rehabilitate millions of acres of unhealthy forest in Washington as an important aspect of wildfire prevention.
“We absolutely have a forest health crisis in Washington state,” Franz remarked. Both she and Inslee stressed the importance of addressing the conditions in the state that could lead to future blazes sooner rather than later.
“If we’re going to reduce homes from burning in 2025, we’ve got to start in 2020 and 2021,” Inslee remarked.
Franz urged the public to help prevent the start and spread of any more fires, saying the state “simply (does) not have the capacity to fight additional large fires.” She thanked the firefighters taking part in the response, and expressed sympathy for those who were affected by swift burning that began Labor Day.
“With the fires moving extremely fast, I know many people left with just the clothes on their backs, and many people will not have a home to return to,” Franz remarked.