CNW Fire Dispatch #2 – Perspective from our Science Director

CNW Fire Dispatch #2 – Perspective from our Science Director

Conservation Northwest / Aug 25, 2015 / Wildfire

A view from Twisp River Road during last week’s evacuation. Photo: Jasmine Minbashian

Editor’s Note: The below is the second of our dispatches from staff living or working in the north-central Washington communities impacted by this year’s fires. 

Dave Werntz, our Science and Conservation Director, lives in Twisp. His family evacuated to the westside this past weekend.

By Dave Werntz, Science and Conservation Director

Along with my wife and daughter, I evacuated last week from our home near Twisp. Our place is safe and sound for now, thanks in large part to heroic efforts from firefighters. While veritable armies have converged here to help from across the state and nation, most responders are local. The three who tragically lost their lives fell here, in my valley, and were also from this community. And while the firefighters are legion in number, they are also spread desperately thin by the overwhelming breadth and intensity of this year’s fires.

“We need to plan for more frequent drought and fire conditions like those we are experiencing this year by advancing policies that promote climate adaptation, such as managing for forest and ecosystem resilience, and local community preparedness.” 

Following on last summer’s experience with the Carlton Complex Fire, at the time the largest in state history (now surpassed by this year’s Okanogan Complex), my community is distressed. So is much of the state, as already over 400,000 acres have burned with about two dozen large fires.

With the drought and the mid-May fire in the Queets rainforest of the western Olympics (still burning today), we knew this was going to be a tough summer. Still, just two weeks ago it felt like we might sneak by. Then came a weather front that brought not just lightning, but more importantly wind, which kicks up any fire. The cause of the fire that made my family and town evacuate is unknown and still under investigation, but we know the vast majority of wildfires are started by people. The Washington DNR reports that on the 13 million acres that DNR protects across the state, 628 of 701 fires this year (90%) were human caused.

Methow Valley, August 2015 Photo Jasmine Minbashian

The weather is both peculiar and responsible for our vulnerability. Whether this drought and heat is related to climate change is a matter of scientific debate, but not terribly relevant. What matters more and is clear is that the changing climate means more seasons like this in the not too distant future.

We need to plan for more frequent drought and fire conditions like those we are experiencing this year by advancing policies that promote climate adaptation, such as managing for forest and ecosystem resilience, and local community preparedness. This is a core focus of our work at Conservation Northwest, and the daily task of our Forest Field Program team that works under my direction to shape and implement better federal timber projects, road network improvements, and other ecosystem resilience-building efforts.

The scale of need is way beyond our present effort, so we applaud Senator Maria Cantwell’s upcoming Wildfire Management Act of 2015, which offers a smarter and more strategic way to finance wildfire response, so fighting fires doesn’t drain the budgets of proactive work to reduce fire risk. It also has a welcome focus on community planning to reduce infrastructure, property and human risks in fire-prone areas. And since in many dry ecosystem types fire is inevitable, Senator Cantwell’s approach would increase use of carefully managed controlled burning, as well as allowing “good” fires to burn where and when safe and appropriate.

We still have at least a few weeks of risky fire season in which anything can happen. But I have a couple observations to make about what has thus far burned. The large fires of 2014 and 2015 have primarily been in the frontcountry shrub-steppe, with Wolverine and Stickpin being notable exceptions. Many of our most expensive and damaging fires have started and burned through private and heavily-managed lands including those managed for industrial production. Fires near and in Wenatchee, Chelan, Riverside, Addy all started nearby. What this means is that when conditions are this ripe, with the land dry and the weather hot and occasionally windy, everything can be prone to fire.  

We can and should still manage risk and promote resilience through careful management, but also be humble about what it means to live where we do.

For the latest official fire updates, we recommend Inciwebthis GIS map, and the Okanogan County Emergency ManagementChelan County Emergency ManagementColville Tribes Emergency ServicesStevens County Fire District #1 and Ferry County Sheriff’s Office / 911 Facebook pages.

We also want to express deep gratitude to all the firefighters, first responders, National Guard, U.S. Army servicemen and women, and all the other heroes working to keep our communities safe during this demanding fire season. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those impacted, especially the families of the firefighters killed last week near Twisp and others who have lost loved ones, homes or businesses to the fires.

Twisp River road fire, August 2015 Photo Dave Werntz