SEATTLE — Washington state is gearing up for what could be one of the worst wildfire seasons in years.
After days of record-breaking heat across Washington, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is urging Washingtonians to do whatever they can to help prevent wildfires this Fourth of July weekend.
While fireworks are banned in parts of western Washington and on all public lands, the DNR is asking the public to skip the backyard firework displays this year due to extremely dry conditions across the state, including sparklers for kids.
“Fireworks have a ton of sparks, even the sparklers that kids have that make sparks, that can cause a fire, and those are safe and sane fireworks,” said DNR spokesperson Janet Pearce. “The bottom line is fireworks are extremely dangerous in our summertime.”
On Friday, the King County Fire Chiefs Association held a briefing with officials from around the area to go over the dangers of fireworks and the traumatic effects they can have on veterans and pets.
Dr. Saman Arbabi, a UW Medicine professor of Surgery in the division of Trauma, Burns and Critical Care at Harborview Medical Center (HMC), also discussed the kind of injuries the hospitals see around Fourth of July because of fireworks.
He said that HMC is already bracing for an influx of patients with multiple operating rooms, multiple surgeons and more staffing being available in the emergency room just for the holiday.
"Loss of hands or fingers, loss of eyes, we see that quite often. The hand surgery team on Fourth of July at Harborview operates 24/7 and goes on a few days afterward," Arbabi said.
King County fire officials said they expect to see a 50-100% increase in fire calls on Sunday. They are asking that anyone who sees illegal fireworks being used, to call the non-emergency number since they expect 911 dispatch to be potentially overwhelmed with the number of fire calls.
"We definitely want everyone to enjoy the freedoms and celebrate those freedoms, but let’s do it legally," King County Fire Chief Eric Hicks said, "Buy legal fireworks.”
The Seattle Police Department sent out a notice on Friday, as well.
"The possession, manufacture, storage, sale and use of fireworks (meaning everything but pop-it caps) is prohibited in Seattle, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine," the notice reads in part.
Seattle Parks also announced it would be turning on lights at ballfields to discourage fireworks use, and prevent damage to play surfaces.
At Friday's briefing, officials also warned of the trauma unexpected fireworks can have on pets and veterans. A surprise bang and flash can unsettle any veterans who have struggled with post-traumatic stress syndrome and overstimulate pets.
Some things that are recommended especially for dogs and cats are to put them in a dark room with some calming music playing. Because their senses are sharper to things like smell and fireworks give off a strong putrid scent, it's good to put a piece of your clothing with them or a blanket that will smell familiar and comfort them.
Experts especially warn residents against taking their pets outside. Not only will they be overly stimulated and potentially run away, but the debris from fireworks is toxic and can make them very sick if ingested. Embers will also be an issue and can get caught in their fur and cause injury.
As of June 30, there have been 564 fires on or have threatened DNR-protected lands, burning a total of 1,340 acres. Of those 564 fires, 427 have been on the east side of the state and 137 in western Washington. About half of those wildfires were due to debris fires getting out of control, the DNR said.
Three firefighters have been injured, one of those severely.
“[Washington state is] usually not this dry and this critical at this point in time. That typically doesn’t happen until the latter half of July and early August,” explained DNR Fire Regulation Program Manager Vaughn Cork.
Between 80-90% of all wildfires in Washington are caused by humans.
“As we approach the Fourth of July weekend, on the heels of a record-breaking heatwave, I am asking everyone to help keep our firefighters safe,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. “Please avoid setting off dangerous fireworks and starting outdoor fires this weekend.”
She added - fire managers are seeing dry conditions about a month earlier than expected, fueling their concerns.
Burn bans are also in effect for many counties across the state, including on all DNR forest lands. If campfires are allowed in your area, the DNR is asking residents to douse the fire with water, stir it, and douse the fire again until it’s cool to the touch before leaving.
Washington State Parks are also implementing a ban on all campfires and any charcoal for the holiday.
The DNR also shared the following tips to stay safe during the upcoming fire season:
- Make sure your dirt bikes or ATVs have operating spark arrestors.
- People should use this time at home to prepare for wildfire by creating defensible space.
- Reduce dry fuels around your home.
- Clean rooftops and gutters.
- Limb up your trees and remove dead branches.
- Pay attention to burn ban restrictions and keep an eye on your burn pile.