SKFR is watching, waiting for dry weather fire outbreak

PORT ORCHARD — As of Aug. 11, it has been 55 days since measurable rainfall layered our parched Kitsap County landscape. Which is great if you’ve needed that time to recover from our exceedingly soggy winter and spring. But if you’re a South Kitsap Fire and Rescue firefighter, it’s decidedly bad news.

The dry conditions county residents have experienced this summer has pretty much matched seasons in the recent past, according to Guy Dalrymple, SKFR assistant fire chief.

While 2015 was the most severe, with high temperatures that dried out low-growth vegetation to spur numerous brush fires, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has been busy keeping a close watch on outdoor burning risks since the region’s drought started almost two months ago. The agency earlier issued a Stage 1 burn ban for Kitsap, King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, removed it last week, then reinstated the ban Aug. 8.

The burn ban calls for a halt to all burning: no charcoal-fed cookouts or anything that generates smoke. No fire pits or similar free-standing devices, campfires or bonfires, fireplaces, uncertified wood stoves or agricultural fires. The agency said using natural gas and propane grills, stoves and inserts are permissible during a Stage 1 burn ban.

Burning trash any time during the year is illegal, Dalrymple said. While SKFR will investigate reports of illegal fires, he said the department places an emphasis on educating residents. Enforcing burn bans falls on the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which has the right to levy fines in the thousands of dollars. A common offense likely to generate a fine is when a lit cigarette is tossed from a moving car.

The fire district’s two new brush-fire fighting trucks have come in handy to tamp down area fires. “Our brush trucks are definitely being put to use this summer,” Dalrymple said. “They’ve also been used at different out-of-district locations to assist other fire departments.”

Complicating the typical risks associated with campfires and careless use of fires in recreational settings, which often lead to brush and timber fires stoked by tinder-dry vegetation and branches, is a high-pressure weather system that has carried a flow of stagnant wildfire smoke from British Columbia into our area.

“We’ve seen similar days here with the heat conditions,” Dalrymple said, “especially so in 2015 — all that, and more. We went through those conditions all that summer. But the smoke from Canada, it’s the first time I’ve seen that.”

In British Columbia, this wildfire season started early in April — and it has been devastating. As of Aug. 4, the B.C. government reported that 868 wildfires have ravaged 1.23 million acres, about the size of Rhode Island, according to the website.

The smoke has created problems for some residents: children, older adults, pregnant women and those with heart and breathing problems.

“What I’m hearing from the crews is that the air quality issue is hitting our more fragile citizens hard,” the assistant fire chief said. “Our typical call volume is in the high 20s each day over a 24-hour period. Just in the five-hour period this morning (Aug. 4), we’ve had a run of over a dozen medical calls. That’s a significant increase over a typical day.”

Just when the hazy conditions will go away isn’t known. But cooler marine air is expected over the next week, which could help moderate temperatures and air quality, according to the National Weather Service. Forecasters have selected Sunday, Aug. 13, as the day most likely to bring some precipitation to the area.