A combination of strategic attacks to put out wildfires and cooler, wetter weather have resulted in a milder wildfire season in Central Washington than anticipated.

Air quality in the Yakima Valley was dramatically better, as a result.

While the state has seen more than 1,000 wildfires this year — compared to a record high last year of 1,850 wildfires — there have been significantly fewer large fires, said state Department of Natural Resources communications director Carlo Davis. Roughly 65 percent of the fires were east of the Cascades.

A focus on strategic initial attacks helped prevent a bad wildfire season, Davis said.

“We prioritized (sending) helicopters and planes as soon as a fire is identified … to keep it small. Then we have our firefighters strategically placed based on fire danger so that they can get on the ground and mop it up,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of success from really prioritizing this strategy and making sure we’re not holding back any resources on the front. We’re getting in as soon as we see the fire.”

Cooler, wetter weather than anticipated also helped.

The damage has been much less than anticipated. At the beginning of wildfire season, the DNR was expecting Washington to experience worse wildfires than last year.

Through the beginning of September, the state had seen 130,000 acres burn, compared to 440,000 acres last year, Davis said.

Yakima Valley fires

In the Yakima Valley, just two fires this year led to evacuations, compared to eight in 2017, said Horace Ward, Yakima Valley Office of Emergency Management’s senior emergency planner.

“This year has been better, to say the least,” said Ward. “The weather cooperated with us. It wasn’t excruciatingly hot all summer.

“It was really green later into the summer than it usually is,” Ward added. “So that really helped keep the fires’ ability to spread rapidly to a minimum and kept us from having the few thousand acre wildfires that we’ve become used to in the last couple of years.”

According to the National Weather Service in Pendleton, Ore., the regional office for Yakima, Yakima County saw just two days with temperatures of 100 degrees or above, compared to 10 last year.

A July lightning storm caused both of the wildfires that led to evacuations.

The Left Hand Fire 17 miles northwest of Naches burned 3,400 acres in late July and early August. Firefighting costs were estimated at $8 million. Level 3 evacuations — requiring that people evacuate — were issued to 26 homes, while Level 2 evacuations warning people as the fire moved closer covered roughly 225 more homes.

The Pipeline Fire, about 7 miles north of Selah, led to roughly 400 homes being issued Level 2 evacuation notices. More than 6,500 acres burned.

About 1,000 acres burned in the {span}Kusshi Creek Fire on the Yakama Reservation. That fire also started in the July lightning storm.{/span}

Still, air quality in Yakima County has been far better in 2019 than previous years. Since January, air quality has been dangerous for some groups on just two days, compared to nine days in 2018 and 10 in 2017.

Unlike previous years when those bad air days were tied to wildfires, the two days this year were likely unrelated, said Hasan Tahat, compliance and engineering division supervisor at Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency.

“One was in March and one in February, so these are not really due to wildfires,” he said. “So far, so good.”

Not in the clear

The slightly milder season also allowed the state to help fight raging wildfires in Alaska this year, Davis said, which could be reciprocated.

But Washington is not yet in the clear, Davis added. Dry, hot and windy conditions, especially on the east side of the state, are still anticipated moving into fall. Past years have seen the wildfire season stretch into October.

“We’re still in wildfire season and asking people to be vigilant and cautious,” he said.

Central and Eastern Washington have above normal wildland fire potential in September, making them some of the highest risk areas in the nation, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The mild season this year is also not an indicator of future wildfire seasons, Davis said.

“We expect the trend will be that we’re going to continue to have high-volume fire seasons going forward that will continue until we turn the corner on (restoring) the health of our forests,” he said.

A 20-year forest health strategic plan that will tend to a total of 1.25 million acres in Washington should result in improvements, but fire seasons will continue to be volatile until then, Davis said.

Restoration efforts include controlled burns and thinning to eliminate overcrowded and unhealthy forests. The DNR could be doing controlled burns as early as this fall.

The Naches Ranger District and partners have been conducting a prescribed burn, called Canteen, near Cleman Mountain near Naches this month. Work will continue this week and cover 7,000 acres. More controlled burns in the Naches Ranger District are planned, if weather conditions permit.

Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka