Area fire danger high; water usage rising

Joe Lehman of Cato Well Drilling of Langley is digging a new well for Pam Smith. Smith is hoping for a much deeper well than her existing well of 27 feet. - Gayle Saran
Joe Lehman of Cato Well Drilling of Langley is digging a new well for Pam Smith. Smith is hoping for a much deeper well than her existing well of 27 feet.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

It's dry, but it's not a drought.

There are signs everywhere that Whidbey Island is experiencing a very dry, warm summer. Lawns have turned from green to brown, foliage has withered and livestock has flopped under trees for shade. Residents are turning on fans and heading to the beaches.

While the island is not experiencing a true drought, it is experiencing increased fire danger and increased water usage.

With less than an inch of rain in May, a trace in June and no rain in July, Whidbey Island is experiencing the worst fire danger since 1994, a fire official said.

As a result county officials have imposed countywide burn ban. The ban means no outdoor fires are allowed, including recreational outdoor cooking fires, using firewood even in fire pits line with concrete. The only outdoor cooking methods allowed are a propane barbecue, a barbecue with briquettes or a self-contained camp stove.

Lying in what meteorologists refer to as the Olympic rain shadow, Whidbey Island usually receives less rain than much of Washington's coast.

Navy Aerographer's Mate Chief Doug Kirks, from the command station at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station said that due to its location in the rain shadow, Whidbey Island summers are usually dry. He said this natural topographic fact and the warm weather brought on by El Nino are the cause of this summer's especially low precipitation.

He said without counting the small amount of precipitation that fell on June 30, the island has had more than 60 days without substantial rain.

Island County Fire Warden Fred Wefer said the yearly dry period is called the fire season, and lasts approximately 100 days. Currently, the state is only about one-fourth of the way into that season.

Wefer said that in this fire season so far Washington firefighters have fought twice as many fires as they have in other years.

"This is the worst it has been since the fires of 1994," Wefer said.

He said that Whidbey Island, which is considered as a part of Washington's interior lowlands, would usually range at 50 percent chance for fires during this time of year. The percentage this year, however, ranges at 90 percent chance for fires.

Wefer illustrated this by saying that on a normal year, if a person took a box of 100 matches and struck each one and dropped it, 30 to 40 would cause a fire. This year, though, 80 to 90 dropped matches would cause a fire.

"We are twice as bad as we normally are," Wefer said. "And we are really concerned about this danger."

He said Western Washington does not usually deal with many fires. Because of this, the undergrowth builds up and dies every year, leaving behind a layer of material called duff. In a dry summer, this layer acts as fodder and kindling, which feeds a fire and helps it climb into the higher vegetation.

Wefer said that in other years it was his responsibility to educate residents on how to best maintain their homes and property for fire prevention. This summer, however, he said has had to set aside the educational mode for the policing mode to protect the greatest number of people.

Wefer said due to the extremely high fire potential, Island County and four of the surrounding counties have implemented a complete burn ban. As of July 31, anyone caught burning, even if they previously received a permit to do so, will incur heavy fines. Also, individuals caught throwing cigarettes from car windows will face a $950 fine.

Wefer said that if this dry spell continues, not only will the danger of increased fires hold a threat, but taxed water and firefighting resources could also occur.

Ground water supplies seem to be holding up during the current dry spell. "We don't tend to see big impacts on ground water during the short term, meaning one summer," Island County Hydrogeologist Doug Kelly said.

"It would take two or three very dry summers to affect the underground aquifers."

"The results of this year's dry weather will not be detected for sometime to come," said Kelly.

Bayview Road resident Pam Smith decided because of the dry weather to have a new well drilled on her property.

"Our existing well is only 27 feet deep and doesn't reach the aquafir. It's OK for now, but rather than take any chances of it drying up, I am having a much deeper well drilled. It will be about 100 feet."

Smith whose family has owned the property for 50 years said her existing well has gone dry several times during that time.

Several local water districts agree that usage is up, but that ground water seems to be flowing fine.

Sandy Duncan, manager of the Freeland Water District said, "we are seeing an increase in water usage, but it is not affecting the status of the well. Freeland wells are fine and are tested monthly by the Department of Ecology," Duncan said.

The Clinton Water district, like Freeland, is experience an increase in usage. According to its manager, Mike Helland, the district is tapping into the secondary well sooner this year than in previous years.

"It's usually August before we see this kind of usage," Helland said.

In Langley's Lakeview Terrace housing division, a sign posted at the entrance by King Water Management Service advises residents to conserve water.

King manages 100 systems, mostly in Island County.

Owner, Clive Defty said the hot, dry weather and increased usage is putting a strain on some the company's wells.

"A few of our systems have not kept up with the demand. Some people don't realize how much water garden sprinklers use. This is a community issue so we are asking our customers to conserve," Defty said.

Resident Donna Warstler and her family live in Lakeview Terrace and are taking steps to conserve.

"If we need hot water, we fill up pitchers and buckets to use for drinking and watering our plants, rather than letting the water run until it gets hot.

The Warstlers have also stopped bathing their dogs, they have four, for the interim and they are not watering their lawn.

Defty is pleased to hear about conservation methods from his customers.

Defty said posting signs seems to be very effective.

"We have seen several of our systems usage drop by 50 percent as soon as people were made aware of the problem."

"Clearly with the heat we are using a lot more water than they usually do. The only way to deal with it it is to pull together and conserve," Defty said.

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