Carlton Complex Fires

The new normal: fire everywhere in the Northwest

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

This week, the majestic Columbia River Gorge experienced an unprecedented fire that spread to more than 40,000 acres in less than five days. Residents and experts in this region were stunned by the still-unfolding disaster in what should be a fire resistant and lush region.

The blaze was reportedly intentionally ignited by some teens on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, when temperatures were in the upper 90s. The group reportedly threw fireworks into the Eagle River Trail area, setting off a blaze that literally exploded in 48 hours, moving more than 13 miles and shutting down Interstate 84, a major transportation corridor, and threatening the primary drinking water source (Bull Run Reservoir) for more than 1 million people in the Portland area.

The blaze is one of many in the region. Nearly 170,000 acres are ablaze at the Chetco Bar Fire, near Brookings, Oregon. Fires have scorched more than a million acres in Montana. Many experts are pointing to climate change and drying conditions as the main driver for the now frightening new normal.

I have not had a chance to observe the wrath of the fire near my Portland home, because it is still an active conflagration, and the firefighters need to keep gawkers out. I will go in once it is safe.

In light of what has happened this summer, I decide to dig up some pictures I took of the devastating Carlton Complex Firs in the Methow Valley area, in Washington state, in 2014. Seeing what fire can do to communities and landscapes is a sobering experience. I expect the worse is still yet to come, if that is even possible.



In the path of fire’s fury


This past week I visited areas that were burned in the Carlton Complex fires, which now rank as the state’s worst in recorded history. Part of a neighborhood was burnt down in the small town of Pateros, on the Columbia River. More than 300 homes were lost in the Carlton Complex blaze as of late July, which still is the epicenter multiple fires now burning in Okanogan County.  It is deeply saddening to see a person’s or family’s dreams turned to black ash.

I believe this fire will be a watershed in how this state contemplates dealing with people living and building in the so-called fire wildland-urban interface zones, which are at high risk of wildfires. Insurance companies will no doubt be rewriting their policies. The larger issues of how we will prepare for a drier, hotter, and more fire-prone future because of ongoing climate change remains to be seen. I expect more fires of this magnitude in the future in this part of the West.

I do not know if those with money or big dreams will still be flocking to resort and natural areas like the Methow Valley to live closer to nature, now that we have tasted nature’s wrath. My experience as a former St. Louisan, where I have witnessed two 100-year floods on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, is that people will likely again build and return in areas once destroyed. The pressures to do so likely will overwhelm many of our best efforts to prevent through smart planning the next all-but certain natural disaster. (Click on each photograph to see larger pictures on a separate picture page.)

(Note this post was updated on Aug. 11, to reflect a more accurate count of the fire damage based on media accounts from local officials.)

Fires continue to burn central Washington


I just completed a trip through some of the most impacted areas of central Washington, where the largest fires ever in the state have left a path of devastation and continued disruption. Okanogan County, a beautiful mountainous and a popular recreation area, was among the hardest hit. One fire alone, the Carlton Complex fire, burned more than 300,000 acres and destroyed dozens of homes. Charred remains of burned buildings can be seen from the roadside, not to mention hills turned black and brown. Thankfully, no one was directly killed. More than 25 helicopters remain deployed in the valley, and several thousand regional firefights continue to fight blazes in the county and now other areas of the state.

I will publish pictures of actual fire damage tomorrow, in Okanogan County and also in the town of Pateros, which lost more than a dozen homes to a fast-moving blaze in mid-July. I have never seen type of smoke cover we have now statewide as I saw the past few days throughout the entire state. (Click on each photo to see a large picture on a separate picture page.)