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Originally published August 18, 2012 at 8:22 PM | Page modified August 20, 2012 at 11:01 AM

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Taylor Bridge fire: A glimpse of what's ahead?

The wildfire that scorched 23,252 acres last week between Cle Elum and Ellensburg offers a nasty glimpse of what fire experts fear may be all too common in the future.

Seattle Times environment reporter

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Even before the evacuations, before the trees went up in bursts of red and orange, before lightning-fast flames flashed through dry grasses and reduced 63 homes and buildings to rubble, the experts knew: The Taylor Bridge wildfire could be a bad one.

Fire conditions were ripe in that stretch of Kittitas County.

But such predictions are no longer tough calls. The same could be said for much of the West.

In fact, the wildfire that scorched 23,252 acres last week between Cle Elum and Ellensburg offers a nasty glimpse of what fire experts fear may be all too common in the future.

Fire ecologists for years have warned that wildfire danger is too high, thanks to a century of fire suppression, decades of ill-conceived timber harvesting, a reluctance to thin out overly thick forests and a dramatic increase in the number of people living in the woods. Rising temperatures and pest invasions helped along by a warming planet have promised only to make things worse.

None of that is exactly new. But this is: In the past two years, efforts have been made to catalog the severity of forest decline. The results are sobering.

In just the past decade, 2 ½ times more acres of Washington pine, fir and spruce than in the 1990s have been hit with weakening or fatal infections such as blister rust or invasions by insects such as the mountain pine beetle, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Three times more acres were damaged than in the 1980s.

Surveys in 2009 found more acres of sick forest than at any time in the previous 40 years.

In the next 15 years, the state projects, 3 million acres in Eastern Washington — roughly one-third of all the state's forestland east of the Cascades — will see significant die-offs or tree damage from bugs and disease.

"You can really see it from the air," Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who flies frequently from Olympia to Eastern Washington, said during an interview Saturday. "I've been witnessing from the air the constant decline ... as evidenced by all the dead and dying trees."

And the problem isn't just here. Bug epidemics nationwide infect more than 40 million acres of forest.

Add in lengthy droughts — some parts of the Rockies have been experiencing overly dry conditions for nearly a decade — and predictions for hotter summers and winters with less precipitation, conditions which allow bugs to survive longer and move into higher elevations, and you have a recipe for conflagration.

Already this year, the West has seen some 6.5 million acres burn, more by this date than during any other year in the past decade.

Between the explosive fires in Colorado and the record-setting high temperatures across the West, Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which monitors every wildfire in the country, said there increasingly seems to be a greater acceptance that fire conditions are getting worse.

"Finally, people are like, 'OK, this is the real deal,' " Smith said. "It's not going away. We're going to have to deal with it."

Whether available tools can do the job remains to be seen.

Winds whip up trouble

The conditions that set up the Taylor Bridge fire aren't unique to Kittitas County.

A damp spring helped range grasses grow unusually tall and thick this year. Then they were cured by the hottest July in history until their moisture content fell below 5 percent.

The region has experienced a few dry years, and a forest insect, the spruce budworm, has weakened many trees in the hills. In some areas, the Douglas fir and pine were packed in tight from the ground to the crown. And the ground was covered in some places with a fair amount of dead timber and needles.

Plus, the region is gusty enough to have attracted one of the state's biggest wind farms.

"Once the fire started in the grass and got into the shrub steppe, it just really got moving," said Mick Mueller, spokesman for the Taylor Bridge firefighting effort, who also used to be a fire ecologist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. "It was moving at speeds of nearly a mile an hour. That's really fast, actually."

The fire was hardly a huge one for Washington; 2006's Tripod fire in Okanogan County burned 175,000 acres, and the 1994 Tyee fire in Central Washington burned 135,000 acres. But the Taylor Bridge fire's force and potential kept fire managers wary.

As of midday Saturday, the fire's sixth day, the blaze had destroyed 48 homes and 15 outbuildings and led to the evacuation of roughly 500 people. The nearly 1,000 firefighters on the ground and several air tankers and helicopters dropping retardant and water helped wrestle 43 percent of the blaze under control. Fire managers hoped to have the entire thing contained by late Monday. But with temperatures soaring to 95 degrees, fire activity was increasing.

Meanwhile, new fires were raging in California, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho. And conditions were so tinder-dry in New Mexico's Gila National Forest that land managers quickly snuffed all fires rather than let any of them burn, fearing that could suck up firefighting resources needed elsewhere.

"I think this is as bad a year as we've had in a while," said Mueller. "It's a year of high concern."

Part of the worry in Washington state is the proximity of Taylor Bridge to the forests around Blewett Pass along Highway 97, which includes some of the trees hardest hit by bugs, particularly bark beetles and budworms. And while budworms don't often kill trees outright, they weaken them enough that trees can become attractive to pine beetles, which do.

"The first year after the beetles kill, the whole crown will turn orange-red and every needle on the tree will be dead," said Glenn Kohler, a forest entomologist with DNR. Those trees are particularly combustible, and the fire can spread into the crowns, which can quickly throw off embers and start fresh spot fires.

"Too much to do"

Earlier this summer, Goldmark declared a "forest health hazard" in parts of several Eastern Washington counties, including Kittitas. That freed up $4.3 million for the state to start reducing the encroachment of fir trees into pine forests, encouraging the growth of larch and ponderosa pine and thinning out small trees from the forest understory.

That's what fire experts agree is needed. But if hotter, drier weather continues to be the norm, it might not be possible to quickly do enough restoration to keep raging wildfires in check.

"Even if we do thinning and prescribed burns during the offseason, it's not really possible to catch up with all of it," Smith said. "They can make a dent in it, but everybody has the same conditions. There's just too much to do."

And the work may not always be enough.

Consider this: Last year, the Department of Natural Resources performed fuel-reduction work, including thinning, in one of the most fire-prone areas of Kittitas County. The location: a steep forested hillside near Highway 97 and State Route 970 — an area that last week became the most explosive portion of the Taylor Bridge fire.

"When you have 40-mile-per-hour winds, there's little you can do to stop a fire," Goldmark acknowledged. "It all depends on the severity of the fire, and this, in some ways, was as bad as it can get."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @craigawelch.

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