Firefighters concerned about brush fire risk as hot weather forecast for Pierce County

Central Pierce Fire & Rescue/Courtesy
·3 min read

As Pierce County has heated throughout August, the rising fire risk has made local fire departments uneasy.

In a tweet last week, Central Pierce Fire & Rescue wrote that over the the last 11 days, its firefighters responded to more than two fires a day on average. In a phone call with The News Tribune, department spokesperson Darrin Shaw attributed the summer heat waves, which will restart again this week, as part of the reason for the increase.

“Right now it’s just the hot, dry weather and the wind,” Shaw said.

This week, Puyallup’s weather could be as hot as 94 degrees, according to The Weather Channel. Other parts of Pierce County are expected to hit the mid-90s, which will continue drying out vegetation.

Joe Meinecke, spokesperson for the Tacoma Fire Department, echoed Shaw’s sentiments. While Tacoma’s jurisdiction is more urban than Central Pierce’s and less likely to experience brush fires, Meinecke told the newspaper his department also is seeing a slight increase in fire calls.

Western Washington’s heavy spring rainfall could hold some of the blame. Both Meinecke and Shaw noted that based of their experience, high precipitation levels that immediately precede summer lead to dry, dense vegetation. That vegetation is easily ignitable; when the golden brown flora is dry and dense enough, a nearby car spark or still-lit cigarette butt can cause a brush fire.

“Hey, we had all this rain in the spring,” Shaw said. “Did that help? Well, no. That caused more fuel because now [vegetation is] bigger.”

Research supports their hypothesis; a 2020 peer-review study of fires in Africa found that fire rates were higher during rainy years and lower during arid periods.

A major concern for Central Pierce throughout the rest of the dry period will be urban interface fires, or fires that start in open spaces near buildings or residential areas. When the weather is arid and windy, as Shaw expects it to be in the upcoming weeks, flames can spread to nearby homes.

Shaw thinks the high-risk period will last until there is at least a week straight of heavy rainfall, likely in the middle of fall.

“You can’t let your guard down,” he said. “It could rain today, but it’s still gonna dry out and be super dry.”

Both departments recommended taking steps to reduce the likelihood of starting and enabling large fires. Meinecke said it is important for people to make sure their cigarettes are fully extinguished and to dispose of them properly, like in public ashtrays.

To prevent active fires from spreading to homes, Shaw recommended keeping dead vegetation, like tree trimmings or firewood, at least 15-to-20 feet away from houses. In addition, he said, residents or their landlords should trim any tree branches that overhang roofs.

“Keeping the fuel away from the home is the most important thing for [preventing] urban interface fires,” Shaw said.