Dry season heightens fire concerns

Longtime residents of Whidbey Island are calling the weather this month the driest and most pleasant that they can remember. But the drought conditions are prompting a countywide burn ban, a call for fireworks common sense and in Oak Harbor, a call to start conserving water.

Longtime residents of Whidbey Island are calling the weather this month the driest and most pleasant that they can remember.

The traditional June gloom has been replaced by a seemingly endless series of bright, sunny days with blue skies.

“I can’t remember it being this nice this early,” said Nancy Conard, Coupeville’s mayor whose lived on Whidbey for more than 60 years.

“It’s been the driest spring I can recall. Not just dry, but warm, too.”

Whidbey’s unseasonably warm weather the past two months has created dry conditions that are throwing caution into the wind, as well as getting some municipalities to start thinking more conservatively.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, who also serves as the county’s fire marshal, has issued a total burn ban in the county starting Monday, June 29.

The last time he did that was two years ago.

“Conditions now are worse than they were in 2013,” he said.

In Coupeville, only 0.22 inches of rainfall was recorded in May and 0.49 inches in June, said Dave Broberg, who tracks Coupeville weather from his certified weather station atop the Blue Goose Inn, which he owns.

In Oak Harbor, 0.37 inches of rainfall was measured in June at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

“This is usually the beginning of the dry season historically,” Brown said. “I think this is probably the earliest I can remember since I’ve been here (since 1994) having this kind of heat so early that we’ve had. It doesn’t take very long for everything to dry out.”

Brown’s order calls for a ban of any outdoor burning of natural debris and no open fires, including cooking fires.

The exception is charcoal and gas barbecue grills that rest on non-combustible surfaces a minimum of 10 feet from natural vegetation.

Brown issued a modified burn ban June 23 then opted for a more restrictive measure.

Brush fire season is off to an early start on Whidbey with two already this week on opposite ends of the island.

“The big thing is for people to be careful,” said Marv Koorn, fire chief at North Whidbey Fire and Rescue.

Despite the countywide burn ban, fireworks are still allowed to be discharged  beginning at noon Sunday, June 28 and continuing through July 5.

Island County follows state law regarding sale and discharge periods for fireworks.

Brown said he can understand confusion created by these conflicting regulations.

“Let’s take a real common sense attitude about this,” Brown said. “We can have fun with fireworks. But we have to have a real understanding that we can have a fire as a result there of. I just don’t want to see a real tragedy occur. Let’s think about what we’re doing here.”

Should this dry weather pattern continue, Brown said it could be time to look at stricter regulations regarding fireworks in Island County. But to incorporate fireworks into a burn ban would require a county ordinance and a process with the state that would take about a year, he said.

Island County Commis-sioner Helen Price Johnson said she’s in favor of a clause in the county code that gives the fire marshal the authority to further restrict fireworks based on extreme conditions.

“I was hoping we would have been able to do that this year,” she said.

Ed Hartin, fire chief at Central Whidbey Fire & Rescue, said the dry conditions he’s seeing are comparable to those seen in August and September.

“The thing that worries me the most is we have a lot of fuel on the ground,” said Hartin, referring to tall grasses, bushes and trees that are already drier than usual.

“And it hasn’t been burned for a long time.”

Hartin knows the warmest weather is yet to come.

“We potentially face some challenges if things dry out because we do have large amounts of fuel.”

As things get drier, Hartin suggests residents near woods consider reducing the fuel sources between their homes and woods.

Island County rarely en-counters large wildland fires, Hartin said. Since 2004, there have been a little more than 40 such fires in the county reported to the Department of Natural Resources. Those averaged just over a half acre in size and tended to occur more on North Whidbey and Camano Island than in Central and South Whidbey.

This year, Hartin’s department has already responded to several brush fires.

“It’s unusual,” he said.

North Whidbey Fire and Rescue responded to a brush fire near Polnell Point early Thursday morning.

It appeared that a campfire on the beach from the night before wasn’t put out completely or at all and the fire extended into nearby brush and up the side of the bluff, said Deputy Fire Chief Mike Brown.

Brown said it was the department’s first significant brush fire of the year but doesn’t anticipate it will be the last.

“We’re definitely aware of the drought and those issues,” he said.

Koorn said conditions are as dry as he’s seen in at least 10 years. He’s been with North Whidbey Fire and Rescue for 37 years.

“I think I’m concerned if we stay this way,” he said. “We’ve been this dry before. It’s an awfully dry year.”

The entire state is facing drought conditions.

A drought emergency was declared by Gov. Jay Inslee last month due to the worst mountain snowpack in decades.

Because of low snow pack in the Cascade Mountains, the City of Oak Harbor has asked water users to voluntarily conserve water. Oak Harbor’s water is pumped in from the Skagit River.

Coupeville hasn’t taken that step yet. Its water comes from an underground aquifer and not the snowpack.

“It isn’t necessary right now,” Conard said.