Monday, September 14, 2015

Smoke Chasers

The dog days, that melancholic time of the season portending the weaning of summer, can be difficult in any given year. Today, with the dire lack of rainfall exacerbating wildfires throughout the West, the “dogs," if you will, are more like the “hounds from hell.” Even leaves on deciduous trees appear fatigued by the long, dry summer.

The historic fire season continues to smolder in Oregon and Washington. Wildfires can occur year round, of course. But after years of climate change and drought -- along with forests rife with ground fuels -- the timberlands of the American West have been transformed into a giant tinderbox, ready to burst into flames.

Knowing full well of the risk of encountering smoke from the National Creek Fire (top photo) near Crater Lake National Park, we called the Park Service for an eyewitness report the day before our scheduled departure for a bit of hiking and camping. “It’s clear and sunny here today,” noted the ranger with a smile in her voice. “Come on up!”

So off we went over for a few days of high country recreation near the “crown jewel" of the Cascades. Arriving at the north entrance to the park, however, the smoke from the National Creek fire was evident, but drifting north and away from the caldera. Fortunately, the Rim Drive around Crater Lake was indeed clear and sunny.

The plan was to climb Mt. Scott (above), but it was too late in the day, so we decided to continue on to Crater Lake Lodge. Stopping at Sun Notch, one of two u-shaped valleys on the rim, we arrived just in time to capture a vision of the Phantom Ship, the smaller of two islands (the other being Wizard Island) on Crater Lake.

The Phantom Ship, an andesite plug older than Mt. Mazama itself, derives its name from the fact that it resembles a sailing ship. From different perspectives, and in different weather and lighting conditions, Phantom Ship (below, bottom left) may appear -- or just as quickly disappear -- from visibility, blending into the caldera wall.

The next day, we climbed the trail to the lookout on Mt. Scott, the highest point in the park at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. A small parasitic cone on the flanks of Mt. Mazama, Mt. Scott is one of the state's oldest volcanoes and tenth highest mountain in the Oregon Cascades. The mountain is named for Levi Scott, an Oregon pioneer.

As we descended Mt. Scott, the smoke from the National Creek fire shifted toward Crater Lake, so we proceeded back to Diamond Lake Campground, grounded for the remainder of the day. The smoke eventually shifted back to the north, providing a smokey but picturesque sunset visible from our campsite (below).

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Fire This Time

For backpackers, September is usually the sweet spot during the hiking season. Typically, the summer heat has abated, and bug season has diminished significantly, if not completely. Huckleberries are ready at hand for hungry hikers and the fall colors are nigh. Not this year, however, and unfortunately, it’s becoming a disturbing trend.

Perhaps the worst season ever, lightning-caused wildfires have scorched timberlands throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska in 2015 (top photo courtesy of former USFS colleague Roger Wallace). Up to 60 large wildfires are burning over eight million acres in the West. Unless El Nino suddenly appears, the record set in 2006 will fall.

That makes it three out of the last four years that we’ve been grounded by smoke at summer's end instead of frolicking in the wilderness. In 2012, the Table Mountain fire chased us out; last year, it was the Chiwaukum Creek fire just down river from Plain. This year, the Wolverine fire is threatening to jump Entiat Ridge.

The question is: will this new wildfire environment become more the rule than exception? Climate change and a long-standing U.S. Forest Service policy of suppressing wildfires have created a backlog of fuels, allowing fires to burn hotter and more intensely. Smoke filled the skies for our entire 400-mile trip from Eugene to Leavenworth.

Changing climate conditions the past few years have certainly played a role. Average summertime temperatures are increasing throughout the Northwest and winter snowpack has been meager compared to previous years. The National Weather Service said the summer of 2015 was the hottest on record in many Northwest cities and towns.

In Salem, the average was 71.3 degrees, highest in 120 years of data. In Portland, it was even warmer: 72.2 degrees, the highest in about 75 years. Lack of snowpack and early melt is one issue, as witnessed by these shots of South Sister and Green Lake taken this year by hiking buddy Bill Welch in May (above), then June (below).

But in addition to warmer climes, forests teeming with dry fuels have become the norm since “The Big Blow Up of 1910,” a wildfire that burned three million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana, killing 87 people, mostly firefighters. Since then, the Forest Service has become quite proficient at wildfire suppression.

Today, however, the agency struggles to keep up with the conditions of new types of “mega-fires” transforming the West. What was once a “forest fire” is now a wildfire, threatening homes in rural woodlands and urban forests alike. Conditions of drought, high temperatures and plentiful fuels have conspired to create a perfect firestorm.

This fire season, however, is more than just about acres. In June, more than 30 homes burned in a subdivision of Wenatchee known as the Sleepy Hollow. Nearly 150 residences combined have burned just north of Wenatchee in the Chelan Complex and Okanogan Complex fires. Three firefighters died last month near Twisp.

As a seasonal firefighter during my college years, I know full well how wildfire can ravage a forest. Despite portrayals in the media and in the movies, fighting forest fires is no glamour detail, I assure you. It’s hard, dirty and dangerous work, and those working on fire lines throughout the West deserve our gratitude and support.

It now appears we are beginning to learn that these mega-fires could become more commonplace. My former colleague from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, Katie Campbell, now an environmental reporter for PBS in Seattle, provides a great overview of what’s involved in fighting wildfires.

To their credit, fire managers are going to great lengths to prevent the Wolverine fire (below) from moving into new communities. As the stubborn 65,000-acre fire creeps westward, officials have initiated a fire break that is 28 miles long and 300 feet wide from the Entiat Valley all the way to Twin Lakes near Lake Wenatchee.

It’s an unprecedented move, and one that shows that fire managers learned much from the Chiwaukum fire in 2014. What’s complicating matters is the number of dead and downed trees in the Chiwawa River Valley. The western pine beetle has destroyed vast stands of lodgepole pines in an epidemic caused by unusually hot, dry summers.

As the comedian Pat Paulsen noted, the number one cause of forest fires is trees. As we come to grips with this changing physical environment, wildfire managers will need to continually reevaluate strategies and tactics, and how to fund the associated costs, in protecting the public -- and their homes -- from wildfires.

Meanwhile, I’ll wait patiently until fire season comes to a close so that I can once again while away what’s left of summer in the wilderness. The Chiwawa River Valley remains closed to the public, so I may have to consider other locations on the Wenatchee River Ranger District before school starts. Oh, and I’ll be praying for rain.