On Labor Day evening, the sun set with a brilliant flash of red across the horizon, then the smell of smoke drifted down on the breeze. The smoke increased overnight so that the Willapa hills looked as if they were covered with blue fog. Turns out that the blue cast is a covering of smoke from out-of-the-area wildfires.
Smoke from fires as far away as northern California are being blown in on a strong wind travelling from an easterly direction. Washington state is in a dangerous historical weather event with high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds.
"With the red flag [weather] warning in place with the high temperatures that we have had and the east winds, wildfires have become a significant concern," said Pacific County Emergency Management Agency Director Scott McDougall.
The combination of these weather conditions have caused the forests and grassy areas to lose their natural humidity. Last Wednesday, the relative humidity was down to 29%, which usually occurs on those severely cold days in winter. Seattle had a relative humidity of 21%. Normally Seattle averages 76% or higher at this time of year. In some parts of Washington, the humidity fell to 10% - 15% making plants susceptible to burning.
"We are sincere in our request that people not do anything that can be an ignition source or even a spark," stated Washington Governor Jay Inslee during a press conference on Tuesday, September 8. "The reason is, we are living in a new world, this is not the old Washington. A fire that you might have seen that was going to be okay over time, isn't okay any more because the conditions are so dry, so hot, so windy, because the climate has changed. This is a new world of forest and grassland fires. We are asking people to help out to prevent these devastating losses [from wildfires]."
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz commented during the press conference that "We are in extreme fire danger in every corner of our state. This is not just an east side issue, it is an entire state issue."
McDougall explained that he had been in contact with Pacific County Fire District #1 and PCFD #3 throughout last week to help come up with a response plan in case a wildfire happens in Pacific County. "There are plans in place, if a wildfire were to break out anywhere in the county," he said. "This is to make sure we have extra fire response."
"[The plan is] just between the two ends of the county," said PCFD #3 Chief Gary Schwisow. "So if we happen to have something, they (Fire District #1, which is the peninsula down there, and the city of Long Beach) is going to respond with an engine. If we go down there, the City of South Bend will send a fire engine, and our district will send a water tender. If it is out here in the Valley, somewhere east of Raymond, we have an automatic response for a water tender out of Pe El, too. It's not a lot of equipment, but it is enough to hopefully help us until we can get more help [from the outside] here." Pacific County also has three brush trucks on hand as well from DNR.
According to McDougall the chance of an extreme fire event, like the one happening on the east side of the state, happening in Pacific County is small. Mainly this is due to the fact that most of the time the air is too wet. The fires that happened in the area last week had the characteristics of an extreme fire because of the dry air. All the local fires were controlled and extinguished quickly.
In the event of an extreme wildfire, local pockets of people will be asked to evacuate. Unlike a tsunami evacuation where the destination is known ahead of time, a fire evacuation will depend on the speed and direction of the blaze. If asked to evacuate, people will be provided with the details on which way to go and where the safest destination will be. McDougall mentioned that an evacuation shelter would be set up in the county if an extreme fire occurred.
For the current fire danger, the hope is that once the wind pattern switches from an offshore flow (blowing from the east) to an onshore flow (blowing from the west) cooler, moist air will be pushed inland. This will increase the relative humidity which will reduce the fire danger in the state.