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Western Washington firefighters train for wildfire season as hotter, drier weather approaches

It may not feel like fire season yet, but firefighters across the state are already preparing for more and bigger wildfires in western Washington.

GREENWATER, Wash. — It may not feel like fire season just yet, as snow was spotted in parts of Pierce County Friday morning, but it's not stopping firefighters from training for more and bigger fires on the west side of Washington state. 

A group of about 50 firefighters got their first taste of what a wildfire feels like Friday morning, as they worked 3,300 feet above Greenwater in Pierce County slashing piles on a cleared logging site. 

"We have a growing population in the Puget Sound region that’s moving farther and farther into the urban interface," said Jake Weigley, the wildfire coordinator for Orting Valley fire. 

He’s been in the business for 19 years, and he’s seeing more wildfires now than even five years ago. "I’ve seen tremendous growth in wildfire and an interface type fire and I would correlate that with growth," he said. 

One of the fires his department helped battle last season was the Sumner Grade fire in nearby Bonnie Lake. Thousands of people were evacuated and hundreds of homes were lost. 

The Sumner Grade fire happened over Labor Day weekend last year, when the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) counted 116 fire starts statewide, burning 629,549 acres. 

The Sumner Grade fire was far from the only wildfire in western Washington last summer, but it was the biggest reminder in years that the west side of our state is not immune to the fires many associate with the eastern half of the state, or California. 

"A couple of weeks ago, we had 75 degree weather, we had wind, east wind, 75 degrees, that’s normal temperatures for July in western Washington,” said Charley Burns, who has fought fires for 49 seasons. He is now retired from the DNR, Washington's largest firefighting agency, and volunteers with Orting Valley Fire. 

"Can it happen here? Yes. It can happen here, and it does happen here," said Burns about fires as summers in western Washington get hotter and longer. 

According to the recent Forest Health report from DNR, "…the bulk of DNRs wildfire activity occurred in July, August and September, although fires occurred in every month except January."

Also notable, 80% of those fires were human caused, according to DNR.  

Burns uses what he called the "swiss cheese" effect, when the holes in the layers of the cheese line up, be that high temperatures, dry trees and brush, an ignition source, and wind. 

Strong, dry winds out of the east are considered major drivers of large fires on the west side of the state, and Burns recalled how the east wind was a key driver behind the Sumner Grade fire.

Back in Greenwater in Pierce County, those firefighters were trained Friday with the help of some 25 support staff. Weigley said the training is larger than usual because COVID-19 considerations canceled last year's training. Now, those firefighters are vaccinated and able to get out. 

The training also involved around a dozen firefighting departments, many now rostering brush trucks for the first time, the smaller four wheel drive engines that wildland firefighters typically use to get over rough terrain to a fire and keep it from spreading.