Washington State Wildfires

The fury of fire

Following the hottest July ever in human recorded history on planet earth, the American west is having the greatest outbreak of wildfires since the great fires of 1910, which ravaged Montana, Idaho, and Washington state.

Fires are burning widely across my home state of Oregon, Washington, California, British Columbia, and Alaska. Three firefighters were killed on Aug. 19, fighting a blaze in the Methow Valley near Twisp–an area hammered by wildfires in 2014. There is major change taking place. This will involve how we plan for fire, build in fire zones, speculate for fast profits in pretty Western scenery (if you can afford that game), and consider what is safe.

Maybe the lessons will be forgotten. People, particularly wealthy people, will still want to live near the mountains and wild places where fires naturally occur, but with global warming patterns due to climate change, the ecosystem will be transformed more and more by big burns. We as a country cannot afford to purely protect all of the property here, particularly when the sacrifice is lost firefighters’ lives. Will it one day be left just to burn?

I took this picture about a week after fires ravaged the town of Pateros, in central Washington, again at the center of Washington’s complex of fires.

(Click on the picture to see a larger photograph on a separate picture page.)

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.)