Climate Changes and the Local Environment:
Ever since the early 2000s, Chelan County in Washington has experienced an increase in average maximum temperature. This trend in increased heat is predicted to reach well into the future. At the same time, the average precipitation shows signs of decreasing, with the average precipitation from 2000-2020 being .26” less than in the twenty years previous. In addition, snow cover over the last five decades, been disappearing earlier and earlier in the year across areas of Russia, Alaska, Canada, and in parts of the northwestern United States.
These factors have all contributed to an increase in wildfires across Washington, with a significant increase in large wildfires in the state starting in 2012. In 2012 alone, there were 12 large wildfires in Washington, four of them affecting Chelan County. At that point in time, Chelan county boasted the eighth highest occurrences of wildfires based on data spanning from 2003 to 2012. Then, in 2015, the fires grew to such a size that Washington state had to declare a state of emergency. That year, Chelan county was rocked by fire that burned 88,985 acres surrounding the city of Chelan. This fire was attributed to drought conditions cause by minimal snowpack and unusually high temperatures.
Increased temperatures, decreased precipitation, and shorter snow cover seasons are elements of climate change that have huge negative impacts on the health of forests, leading to larger and more devastating wildfires. Though wildfires are a natural element of new growth in forested areas, the increase in devastation and frequency of large-scale fires is a danger to both humans and the natural environment. The ecosystem of Washington state forests could be severely impacted by the increase in large-scale wildfires.
How We Know:
Much of the data used in this project comes from the following interactive tools: The Climate Explorer, the Global Climate Dashboard, and Climate at a Glance. Graphs from the Climate Explorer that show the increase in Chelan County’s average maximum temperature were created by combining observed historical data and current measurements to predict and model possible future trends in temperature. Climate at a Glance and The Climate Explorer are both run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. County specific data is collected from NOAA’s US Climate Divisional Database, which contains climate data spanning from 1895 to 2020.
Snow cover data has been collected from satellite images that have been mapping the snow extent of the Northern Hemisphere since the 1960s. This data, now collected daily as opposed to weekly as was the case in the sixties, is corroborated by various other measuring tools including observations, precipitation gauges, and weather stations with pressure-sensitive measuring tools.
The fire data used in this report has been compiled from various sources including a Washington State Wildland Fire Profile from 2013, a report on the Chelan Complex fire of 2015, and various articles.
The increase in wildfires in Chelan county poses a threat for residents and their surroundings. The Chelan Complex fire alone destroyed 58 buildings, causing $23,513,366.00 worth of damage. Economically, dealing with fires is very expensive. Between 2010 and 2016, Washington spent nearly a half a billion dollars fighting fires and maintaining fire departments. This imposes significant economic strain on all residents of Washington.
Not only can people be affected by the economic repercussions of increasing wildfires, the rising threat means increased health risks as well. Though only a few wildfire deaths have been recorded in Chelan county, wildfire smoke increases the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular health issues. Smoke inhalation can also aggravate preexisting health conditions such as asthma and angina. People over the age of 65, children and infants, pregnant mothers, and people with lung, respiratory, and heart problems are all particularly susceptible to adverse effects.
Though steps such as burn bans are being implemented in attempts to decrease the rate of wildfires in Chelan county, the decreasing precipitation and snow cover combined with the increasing heat means that forests are more at risk than ever, and forests at risk means that people are at risk.
Washington Forest Protection Association
Rutgers University Global Snow Lab
Climate Time Machine
Temperature, Precipitation, and Drought
Article author: Gracie Camp, William O. Douglas Honors College, Central Washington University
Article editor: Dr. Tamara Caulkins, William O. Douglas Honors College, Central Washington University