We got lucky this time. With the combination of low rainfall, dry forests, grasslands and many dead trees due to insect infestation, it is a wonder that the fires in the Pacific Northwest have been relatively small and confined. The Taylor Bridge Fire, the Wenatchee Complex and the Table Mountain wildfires have burned well over 100,000 acres. More than 60 homes were lost (many more threatened); wildlife, livestock and human lives were also threatened.

The Taylor Bridge Fire set the scene for large wildfires in the mixed forest and steppes of eastern Washington.

Fire damage near Taylor Bridge

The fire spread rapidly above the Yakima River east of Cle Elum and burned northeast. The fire claimed more homes and farm/ranch buildings of any fire to date.

Burned posts near the Kittitas Valley Wind Farm

Aggressive action by firefighters on the ground and from the air saved many properties. We took a drive through the region and saw a number of places where the fire was literally at the doorstep and was beaten back.

Many homes were spared by the construction of firelines. Seeing a home surrounded by burnt vegetation paints a vivid picture about the bravery and determination of the men and women who fight these monsters.

The Table Mountain and Wenatchee Complex wildfires are in more forested regions with dry trees and the early, warm spring contributed to significant undergrowth (brush). The lack of precipitation and the combination of these fuels increased the region’s susceptibility to lightening strikes, which have been pinpointed as a significant cause. This lethal combination also enabled the fires to spread rapidly. The fires lead to large scale evacuations and also contributed to breathing disorders and generally unhealthy air, especially downwind of the fires. That the fires are unpredictable and very smoky only intensifies the hazard to anyone living, hiking or hunting in the vicinity and especially to those fighting the fires.

Containing the fires is the first order of business whether by directly fighting the flames and/or constructing firelines around the fires. Firelines are built by using existing roads and trails and by digging new ones using any means available from bulldozers to Pulaski’s. Water drops by helicopters are also used to target spot fires as well as to slow their spread.

Containing a fire is not the same as putting it out. Some fires will continue to burn or smolder underground. Fire Managers must decide whether to pursue blazes inside the containment area or allow them to burn out under supervision. Unless homes or critical habitat are threatened, fires are often left to smolder until rain or snow extinguishes them completely.

Nature plays a large role in restoration, often beginning with weeds. Already, Oregon grape and thistles are growing back where fires have burned.

Oregon grape grows in the aftermath

In the past, burned areas were often left to nature to restore but sometimes nature needs a hand. Today, given the importance of salmon-bearing streams, more attention is given to preventing runoff by establishing waterbars and planting native species. Burned Area Emergency Restoration teams are already beginning to assess and plan for this restoration.

You can track the progress of nature and man in the process of restoration by exploring old burned areas by car or by foot though caution is always is in order. On a recent hike, signs had been placed warning of a small burn north of the trail and to keep out because of the possibility of trees and branches falling. Attention must be paid to the dangers inherent in burned over areas which may also include smoldering underground fires fed by the buried root systems as well as hot spots that may lurk until snow falls.

Prevention is key to preventing wildfires. Smokey the Bear was right. No one can prevent lightning sparked fires but we can all prevent human caused ones. Watch for fire danger warning signs and be aware of the conditions where hiking, hunting or camping. If you find a fire put it out and report it. Do not smoke in the forest during a burn ban and do not enter closed areas. Roads and trails are closed not to inconvenience you but to speed efforts to put out fires. In Cle Elum we saw a handwritten sign that read Godspeed Firefighters!. Thank them when an opportunity arises, they work hard and are dedicated to saving our lives, property, wilderness and the lives of mammals, birds and insects that depend on the wilderness to survive.

Our driving tour of the Taylor Bridge Fire Zone:

From Cle Elum drive east on Highway 970 to Lambert Road (the turn is just past the turnoff to SR 10). Turn right and follow Lambert to Taylor Road and turn right again. This will bring you out to just below the Taylor Bridge on State Route 10.  Drive east on SR 10 to Hayward Road and turn left (north). Follow Hayward (where you can see the Kittitas Valley Wind Farm) to Bettas Road which will bring you to US Highway 97. At US 97 turn left to meet the junction to either cross Blewett Pass or to return to Highway 970 and Cle Elum.

 

 

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