“Exceptional year” for devastating forest fires

USA: “Exceptional year” for devastating forest fires

Source: The Spokesman-Review, 28 October 2001

Associated Press 
YAKIMA – Drought and dry lightning combined to create a deadly wildfire season in the Northwest this year, killing four firefighters and burning more than 600,000 acres in Washington and Oregon.
Washington had 1,209 wildfires on 237,820 acres and Oregon had 3,011 on 383,766 acres, with some of the most serious fires burning at the same time.
“It’s really an exceptional year when you get hammered in both states,” said Mike Fitzpatrick, intelligence coordinator for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, which coordinates resources for big fires in the region. Washington’s last major fire year was in 1994; Oregon’s in 1996. 
“It’s all dependent on the weather,” said Robin DeMario, a spokeswoman for the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests in north-central Washington, where some of the state’s largest fires burned this year. The woods were crackling dry during the summer, and even relatively green trees and brush torched almost instantly because their moisture content was so low. The hot and dry summer of 2000 spawned several huge range fires in eastern Oregon and Washington, including the 163,000-acre fire at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. By the summer of 2001, parched conditions invited fires at higher elevations in heavier fuels — forest fires. Higher-elevation fires are harder to fight and contain because of the steep, rocky terrain and the relative inaccessibility of wilderness areas. But the 2001 fire season will be remembered more for the deaths of four firefighters than for drought. On July 10, the Thirty Mile fire, started by an abandoned campfire on the Okanogan National Forest, blew up in the narrow Chewuch River canyon, trapping 14 firefighters and two campers. Four firefighters — Tom Craven, 30, of Ellensburg, and Devin Weaver, 21, Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen FitzPatrick, 18, all of Yakima — died in their emergency fire shelters. The others survived, although firefighter Jason Emhoff was severely burned. Another firefighter, Rebecca Welch, shared her one-person shelter with the two stranded campers, saving their lives. A subsequent investigation by the Forest Service found that fire managers and field bosses made numerous mistakes, ignoring or violating even the most basic warning signs and safety rules. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation into the Thirty Mile fire is under way and a report is expected by year’s end.
Nationwide, the 2001 fire season was fairly typical. But Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Florida had more severe seasons than was normal and accounted for about half of the 3.2 million acres burned nationally this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. The historical average for 10 years in Washington and Oregon is 4,193 fires total on 474,000 acres, Fitzpatrick said. This year, 4,220 fires burned on 621,586 acres. The number of fires doesn’t fluctuate too much over the long term, but the acreage burned can vary. The number of fires started by people each year also is fairly constant. “Lightning is the wild card, and whether it’s wet or dry,” Fitzpatrick said. “Drought and dry lightning can cause tremendous problems.”
Like this year, 1994 was a drought year, DeMario said. That year, more than 180,000 acres burned on the Wenatchee National Forest around the towns of Leavenworth, Entiat, Lake Wenatchee and Chelan. Thirty-seven homes were destroyed along with 76 outbuildings. This year on the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests, now merged administratively, more than 70,000 acres burned, but only one summer cabin was lost. Two of the most serious fires on the Wenatchee National Forest this year – the Icicle, just outside of Leavenworth, and the Rex Creek fire, along the shores of Lake Chelan – are completely contained by reinforced firebreaks, DeMario said. But, months later, they’re still probably not out. “In the interior, there may be a pocket or two still smoldering,” she said. That’s why fire managers appreciate fall rains, in hopes of fully extinguishing the season’s fires before the mountains are covered in ice and snow, Fitzpatrick said. A standard Northwest fire season begins in mid-July and ends in mid-September, but this year, there were large fires reported by early July and the season ran into early October. “There has been no good, wetting rain. The season … is mostly dying of old age east of the Cascades,” Fitzpatrick said.
And it could happen again next year. “If some areas of the states, especially east of the Cascades don’t get every bit of normal winter precipitation, we could go into next spring in a situation very similar to this year,” Fitzpatrick said.

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