|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:
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.