Tracking wildfire smoke

Climate change and wildfire

Air & Climate

We monitor air quality conditions and forecast smoke levels. We also work with the Washington Departments of Natural Resources and Health, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Weather Service to track wildfire smoke and protect people who live in Washington.

Environmental influences

The risk and extent of wildfires in the western United States is growing because of climate change. Snow is melting earlier in the spring leading to soils and forests that are drier, and stay dry longer. This leads to wildfires that can burn hotter and spread faster. Climate change causes forest fuels (the trees and plants that burn and spread wildfire) to be drier and more easily ignited.

The number of large fires has doubled between 1984 and 2015 in the western United States. These hotter and drier conditions also set the stage for more human-ignited wildfires. For much of the west, projections show that an average annual one degree Celsius rise in temperature may increase the area burned in a typical year by as much as 600 percent. 

The effects of climate change that contribute to increased wildfire risk include:

  • Earlier snowmelt.
  • Rising temperatures, which contribute to more, prolonged heat waves.
  • Drier summers, increased drought, lower soil moisture content.
  • Spread of the mountain pine beetle and other insects that kill or weaken trees and plants.
  • More fuels from dead trees and plants.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise we can expect more wildfires, for longer seasons.

Human influences

While climate change may not be the only cause of wildfires, the rising temperatures and increased drought from the changing climate contribute to more frequent, more damaging fires. These conditions make it easier for people to ignite fires and mean that those fires may spread more rapidly and burn more intensely, making them harder to extinguish. More than 80 percent of U.S. wildfires are started by people whether by accident, negligence, or intent (arson).

The Bureau of Land Management uses the Wildland Fire Management Information (WFMI) system to classify human-caused wildfires:

General Cause Specific Cause
Campfire Cooking, warming, bonfire
Smoking Cigarette, cigars, pipes, and matches/lighters used for lighting tobacco
Fire use  Debris burning, burning ditches, fields or slash piles, etc.
Incendiary Arson, illegal or unauthorized burning
Equipment Vehicles, aircraft, exhaust, flat tires, dragging chains, brakes, etc.
Railroads Exhaust, brakes, railroad work, etc.
Juveniles Fire play - matches, fireworks, lighters, etc.
Miscellaneous Includes burning buildings, fireworks, power lines, shooting (ammo, exploding targets), spontaneous combustion (hay baled while still wet, compost piles, oily rags), blasting, and coal seams
Other Known or Unknown When a specific cause is unknown or the cause is not in the specific cause list, then other known or unknown is selected.  When "other" is selected, the cause should then be noted in the remarks (i.e. exploding target).

How you can help prevent wildfires

More and more people are making their homes in woodland settings — in or near forests, rural areas, or remote mountain sites. There, homeowners enjoy the beauty of the environment but face the very real danger of wildfire. 

Follow these guidelines to learn how to prevent wildfires, protect your property and surrounding areas, and protect your health from smoke:

  • NEVER throw cigarettes out your car window or on the ground.
  • Don't park hot vehicles, recreational vehicles, trailers, fuel-powered lawn equipment on grass.
  • Don't drag trailer chains on the ground, which could cause sparks.
  • Clear the perimeter of your house from pine, fir needles, and yard waste.
  • Keep your gutters clean.
  • Adhere to burn bans, and report illegal burning.
  • Extinguish camp fires completely.
  • Monitor air quality in your area
  • Have an evacuation plan in place — no matter if you are home or traveling.
  • Visit Ready, Set, GO!  for more emergency preparedness tips

To help slow the effects of climate change that contribute to increased wildfire risk, we are working to reduce greenhouse gases. You can also help, and make a difference, by reducing your carbon footprint.

We monitor wildfire smoke to protect your health

Because the risk of wildfires is increasing with the changing climate, we, along with our partners, monitor air quality to protect your health. We have a number of monitors around the state and use a few different tools to communicate with you. During a wildfire event, we often add temporary air monitors. 

Find information about air quality and wildfires in your area using the tools below: