Lightning, wind and high, dry grass: a recipe for conflagration
Across the country, fire season had been shaping up as a mild one, despite several warning signs. Then came Northwest lightning and some seriously bad luck.
Seattle Times environment reporter
The nation’s wildland firefighting corps zeroed in on the Northwest Friday, as some 7,000 firefighters in Washington and Oregon wrestled twice as many blazes as the rest of the country combined.
Temperatures rose and humidity fell while wind gusts reached up to 30 mph — enough force that one Oregon fire spread a frightening 18 miles in 24 hours.
“The Northwest right now is the top priority for the nation,” said John Saltenberger, with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.
While Oregon is seeing more fires and bigger fires, Washington’s fires are closer to population centers.
In Pateros, near the mouth of Okanogan County’s Methow River, residents on Friday began making their way back to the smoking, charred remains of their houses — dozens of which had been reduced to rubble. But farther up the same river valley blazes scarred power poles, wiping out electricity for thousands, just as a major fire exploded, putting more homes in jeopardy.
“The fire behavior out there has been just remarkable,” said Ken Frederick, with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
In Brewster, flames fueled by cured grasses gutted the popular Silver Spur Resort’s main lodge. A Chelan County fire rained wind-whipped ashes down on nearby Leavenworth.
Massive blazes in Oregon, including one that topped a quarter of a million acres, killed cattle and seared sensitive grasslands needed by wildlife.
By late morning Friday the situation was already so bad that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced plans to call up 1,000 members of the National Guard and train them in Yakima so they could assist fire crews.
They would join 2,000 firefighters already battling the state’s four major fires and dozens of smaller ones.
“I know people have seen fires before,” Inslee said. “This is a different beast. This is a firestorm.”
Just the three biggest Washington fires, Okanogan County’s Carlton complex fire and Chelan County’s Mills Canyon and Chiwaukum Creek fires, had grown to roughly 200,000 acres by midday Friday and included the evacuation of up to 500 homes.
Roads were closed all over the region, including Highway 2 west of Leavenworth, Highway 97 from Chelan to Brewster, and Highway 20 east of Twisp.
Experts all year had been predicting that 2014 could be a bad year for fire. But Washington wasn’t where most people expected to see it.
With California’s lack of snowfall and extreme drought desiccating much of the West, fire forecasters had been eyeing forests warily.
But until this week the nation’s wildfire season had been far milder than anyone expected.
On average during the past decade, some 43,000 fires burned 3.5 million acres by mid-July. But this year there have been far fewer fires, and they’ve destroyed a mere 1.2 million acres.
“It’s been a pleasant surprise,” Frederick said.
The change started with a storm front last weekend that moved north through Oregon and then Washington, producing some 10,000 lightning strikes in two days. While last year there was four times as much lightning, bad luck helped transform these electrical storms into conflagrations.
The storms sparked dozens of fires, many of them in out-of-the-way places that made them hard for initial response crews to suppress. By Thursday the weather just made things worse.
Not only was it hot, dry and windy, but the wind traveled in precisely the wrong direction, sending fires racing up steep hillsides in the eastern Cascade foothills.
“Some of the most spectacular fire growth has come when the northwest to southeast alignment of the canyon aligns with the direction of the wind,” Saltenberger said. “When those two things come together ... whoo.”
And conditions in those areas were ripe.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, late snow and rain like the region experienced this spring can make summer fire season worse.
“If the moisture is timed well enough, you get that burst of grass growth,” said Jeremy Sullens, with the fire center in Boise.
When the thick grass dries out and dies in midsummer, it provides thin kindling that lets fires spread quickly.
Fire experts said the weekend weather held promise, with cooler air moving in off the coast. But there was a chance things could get worse before they get better.
“We’re already seeing clouds coming in along the coast,” said Saltenberger. “The trouble is, when the weather shifts there’s usually a wind event in between. And I’m seeing a call for more gusts.”