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Island dries up

With less than an inch of rain in May, a trace of rain in June, no rain in July and little possibility of rain falling the first week of August, Whidbey Island is facing its driest summer since 1994.

Many people view this streak of no rain as good luck for camping, hiking, swimming and other summer fun. This lack of precipitation, however, brings with it a few serious problems, such as fires, burn fines and use restrictions in parks.

Receiving little rain during the summer months, Whidbey Island’s naturally lush foliage and vegetation has begun to whither and dry.

Lying in what meteorologists refer to as the Olympic Rainshadow, Whidbey Island usually receives less rain than much of Washington’s coast.

Aerographer’s Mate Chief Petty Officer Doug Kirks, at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, said due to its location in the rainshadow, Whidbey Island summers are usually dry. He said this natural topographic fact and the warm weather manifestations brought on by El Nino is the cause of this summer’s especially low precipitation.

He said without counting the small amount of precipitation that fell on June 30, the island is in its 60th day without substantial rain.

Island County Fire Warden Fred Wefer said the yearly dry period is called the fire season, and lasts approximately 100 days. Currently, Washington is in its 23rd day of the season.

Wefer said that within these 23 days, firefighters throughout Washington have fought twice as many fires as they have in other years.

“This is the worst it has been since the fires of 1994,” Wefer said.

He said that Whidbey Island, which is considered a part of Washington’s interior lowlands, would usually range at 50 percent chance for fires during this time of year. The percentage this year, however, ranges at 90 percent chance for fires.

Wefer illustrated this by saying that on a normal year, if a person took a box of 100 matches and struck each one and dropped it, 30 to 40 would cause a fire. This year, though, 80 to 90 dropped matches would cause a fire.

“We are twice as bad as we normally are,” Wefer said. “And we are really concerned about this danger.”

He said Western Washington does not usually deal with many fires. Because of this, the undergrowth builds up and dies every year, leaving behind a layer of what Wefer called duff. In a dry summer, this layer acts as fodder and kindling which feeds a fire and helps it climb into the higher vegetation.

Wefer said in other years, it is his responsibility to educate citizens on how to best maintain their homes and property for fire prevention. This summer, however, he said has had to set aside the educational mode for the policing mode, so as to protect the greatest amount of people.

Wefer said due to the extremely high fire potential, Island County and four of the surrounding counties have implemented a complete burn ban. As of July 31, anyone caught burning, even if they had previously received a permit to do so, will incur heavy fines. Also, individuals caught throwing cigarettes from their car windows will receive a $950 fine.

Wefer said that if this dry spell continues, not only will the danger of increased fires pose a threat, but taxed water and firefighting resources could also occur.

Ground water supplies seem to be holding up during the current dry spell. “We don’t tend to see big impacts on ground water during the short term, meaning one summer,” Island County Hydrogeologist Doug Kelly said. “It would take two or three very dry summers to affect the underground aquifers.”

Kelly said, however, that this summer’s dry conditions could affect the above ground water reservoirs.

Lee McFarland, the superintendent of Island County Parks, said the parks have cut back on lawn and park watering in an attempt to conserve water. He said the only county grounds that are receiving irrigation are the ball parks and fields.

McFarland also noted that open fires are not allowed at any county parks or picnic areas. Park visitors may still use propane stoves and self-contained camp stoves.

Wefer said he hopes the moisture level in Washington rises and the amount of dry weather repercussions declines. If it does not, Wefer gave a prediction for the effects of this dry spell.

“If it gets worse, ‘94 will be a whisper in our ears by the time we get through August,” Wefer said.

He said that individuals can play a part in eliminating some of the potential danger areas around them.

To do so, community members should follow the regulations of the burn ban. They should watch what they throw out of their cars or pile near their houses -- keep wood and brush away. And they be extra careful with what outdoor tools and stoves they use in dry areas.

“We need all kinds of Smoky Juniors to help us,” Wefer said.

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