As wildfires burn across Washington state, governor declares an emergency

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With wildfires burning in Central and Eastern Washington, as well as the Olympic Peninsula, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. - Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday declared a state of emergency as wildfires burned on the Olympic Peninsula and in Central and Eastern Washington.

The proclamation authorizes the Washington National Guard to activate and help the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) protect houses, businesses, public infrastructure, as well as agriculture and natural resources.

With large-scale wildfires burning in recent years across the state, National Guard members have been trained and deployed to help fight fires.

Firefighting resources across the state are currently spread thin, according to a statement from the governor’s office. The situation is compounded by dry weather, high temperatures and an increase of visitors to wilderness areas in Washington. A majority of wildfires earlier this year were started by people.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited Washington’s ability to get help from Canadian aviation firefighting resources that the state might otherwise use, according to Inslee’s emergency proclamation.

“Wildfires are threatening the safety and livelihoods of Washingtonians all across the state,” Inslee said in prepared remarks. “And the COVID-19 pandemic has put additional strain on our resources, as some of our usual support is further limited due to international movement restrictions.”

Hot, dry weather makes it easier for lightning strikes to spark blazes.

“Due to hot, dry conditions and lighting storms, we have fires burning across Washington and existing firefighting resources are at capacity,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz in the statement.

“We are so grateful to our partners at the National Guard who are answering the call and joining us on the firelines,” Franz added. “We train with them prior to wildfire season and know the skill and abilities they bring to the wildfire emergency facing so many communities right now.”

In an email Wednesday, DNR spokesperson Janet Pearce wrote that the agency isn’t yet sure where guard members will be deployed, “as things are happening fast.”

As of Wednesday morning, DNR had responded to 1,227 fires this year, according to the agency’s fire-tracking website. Of those, 343 were in Western Washington, while 884 were on the Eastern side of the state.

The website showed a handful of large fires across the state, including the Taylor Pond fire in Yakima County, which has scorched about 25,000 acres.

Meanwhile, even Washington’s rainforest region has seen at least one blaze, with the East Beach Road fire reported in late July in Olympic National Park.

That fire had been almost wholly contained at 84 acres, according to a news release this month. But safety concerns and steep terrain meant firefighters couldn’t completely mop it up, according to the release.

Inslee’s emergency order remains in effect through Sept. 30.

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©2020 The Seattle Times