Saturday, May 14, 2016

In the News: Wildfires in Western Washington

A hillside scorched by last summer's wildfire near Newhalem. Lainey Piland photo

It's only May, and already wildfire season has begun in western Washington. Wait... is that right? Western Washington? We're used to hearing of wildfires burning during the summer months on the state's drier side east of the Cascade mountains, but wildfires here on the west side are typically limited to small blazes burning along the roadside or highway medians thanks to carelessly discarded cigarettes. I know I'm not the only one shocked to see headlines like these in the Seattle Times:
Prepare to flee. 

In my entire life, the only thing I've had to flee from is the Snoqualmie River. I lived for several years in an apartment on the second floor of an old barn situated about 25 yards from the river's edge. On more than one occasion, my sister and I had to grab our cats and a few day's worth of clothing and flee from the churning currents that left the access road and bottom floor of the barn flooded with the Snoqualmie's chilly waters.

In rainy western Washington, we're used to fleeing from floods. But wildfires? Those are only in eastern Washington! Or at least they were. It now appears that we'll need to get used to fleeing from wildfires over on the west side as well.

As of this writing, the wildfire burning in Gold Bar (a stone's throw from my childhood hometown of Monroe) has burned 325 acres. The fire up north near Oso has burned 130 acres. So far, there is no information on what caused the fires. Both are reported to be burning in logging areas, which is making the fires even harder to fight, with all of the available fuel lying around.

Normally, fires wouldn't find great quantities of readily-burning fuel this time of year, with the landscape still well-saturated from winter and spring rains. But this year, with an April that was the hottest on record, and with May kicking off with temperatures we typically see in early July, there is plenty of fuel dry enough to burn in those logging areas, and things are clearly anything but normal around here.

In fact, I'm not sure how much longer we'll be able to say "well, normally at this time of year..." because we're rapidly shifting to a new normal. Back in 2014, I wrote a blog post reviewing the 2014 National Climate Assessment and the anticipated effects of climate change it described for our region. In summary, it was projected that we'd see warmer, wetter winters (low mountain snowpack in winter 2014-2015, anyone?), hotter, drier summers (like the record number of 90-degree days in summer 2015), fewer rainy days overall, but a greater number of days with intense downpours (like this one last year), and a significant increase in land area burned by wildfires (like the record-breaking Carlton Complex fire in 2014).

These are the impacts climate change has wrought in our region. They are no longer one-off anomalies, they are now a trend. They aren't predictions for some distant future, they are predictions that we have already reached - surpassed, in fact - decades sooner than projected.

After running a few errands this morning, I pointed my car eastward and headed out to the Snoqualmie Valley to visit my horse and do barn chores, as I do every weekend. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill at the intersection of the Woodinville-Duvall and West Snoqualmie Valley roads, the familiar panorama of the Cascade mountain range came into view, dominating the skyline before me. Today, the mountains were scarfed with trailing brown smoke, the cloudy sky tinged an eerie orange hue thanks to the fire burning in nearby Gold Bar. It was an unsettling sight. Continuing down the valley, the skies grew darker, and a hesitant spitting of raindrops pattering on the windshield soon became a full-fledged downpour. Go to Gold Bar, I thought to the deluge. Go to Oso.

Let's hope today's rain will help firefighters extinguish the wildfires, but let the unsettling sight of those flames smoulder on within us, kindling us to take action on climate change and protect this place we call home.

Please keep the people of Oso, Gold Bar, and surrounding areas in your thoughts, as well as the firefighters and first responders. 


  1. I know! Forest fires in mid-May in western WA??? Never in my life! Until now, our new normal. It feels like this change has really jumped up in the last two years. Looking at my blog posts form 2011, 2013, and even 2013, things seemed like "normal." I got a shocker on Instagram yesterday. Someone posted a shot of Mendenhall Glacier outside Juneau and said - Hard to believe that the glacier extended to where I'm taking this shot just 5 years ago! (and the glacier was off in the distance.) Hey, I was there in June 2011, 5 years ago! Shocking. Anyway, I try to drive less, use less plastic, but feels like all I can do is wave and wring my hands. Heavy sigh.

    1. I think the only thing more alarming than seeing wildfires in western Washington is seeing everyone's reaction - or rather, lack thereof - to these fires. It seems like the majority of people don't seem to find this a big deal, but it really is! We just don't have wildfires over here, and certainly not in May! Unfortunately, climate change seems to be professing not in a gradual linear fashion but in a series of sudden jumps in severity. I fear that the Washington I grew up in has been left behind us forever. Along with those glaciers (what a change in 5 years! Unbelievable). I thought we had more time. :(

      I hear you on feeling helpless even though we try to do what we can. I don't think there's anything that we as individuals can do to make the difference necessary to tackle climate change: it's going to take a huge global societal shift. I just hope we can get there. But in the meantime we can each do everything we can! It certainly won't hurt. Maybe we can help get the ball rolling.

  2. Grr, typos in my prior comment. :(