Western wild­fires get larger, closer to ur­ban cen­ters

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION - By Kirk John­son

TROUTDALE, ORE. >> Some fires sud­denly ex­ploded in size. One in Mon­tana dou­bled in 24 hours, char­ring 78 square miles overnight — an area big­ger than Brook­lyn, a bor­ough in New York City. Al­ready-burn­ing fires started new ones, shoot­ing em­bers like ar­tillery bar­rages, in­clud­ing one that ap­par­ently jumped sev­eral miles across the Columbia River into Wash­ing­ton from Ore­gon, breach­ing a nat­u­ral fire­break that long seemed im­preg­nable. Ex­treme fire be­hav­ior — dif­fi­cult to pre­dict and dan­ger­ous to fight — has been the watch­word of the 2017 sea­son across the West. More large, un­con­trolled wild­fires were burn­ing in 10 Western states in early Septem­ber than at any com­pa­ra­ble time since 2006.

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Closer prox­im­ity to fire also means more bad air, as well as dan­ger. Winds sent chok­ing smoke from the fires into ur­ban ar­eas from Denver to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

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And those fires have leaned in, men­ac­ing more lives and prop­erty, by their size and their prox­im­ity, than in any re­cent sea­son. Two fire­fight­ers died in Mon­tana, and dozens of build­ings and homes have been de­stroyed in Cal­i­for­nia. About 150 hik­ers had to be res­cued in Ore­gon when a fire en­cir­cled them. Evac­u­a­tion or­ders — res­i­dents told to be ready to flee at a mo­ment’s no­tice — reached to within 15 miles of down­town Port­land. One of the largest fires ever recorded in Los An­ge­les County roared down from a canyon near Bur­bank, leapt a high­way and forced hun­dreds of res­i­dents, from Bur­bank into Los An­ge­les it­self, from their homes.

For Jerry and Cheri Brown, the dis­turb­ing and sur­pris­ing con­tours of the sea­son hit home this month when they stepped out­side their mo­tor home, which was parked on the banks of the Columbia River, where they were vol­un­teer­ing as hosts at a camp­ground about an hour east of Port­land.

It was rain­ing fire, or close to it, they said. Small sticks and pine cones, smok­ing and still too hot to touch, were land­ing around them, whirled there by winds blast­ing from the Ea­gle Creek fire just to the east near Mult­nomah Falls, a place that has not seen a ma­jor wild­fire in liv­ing mem­ory. Then, as they looked to­ward the Cas­cade Range slopes that rise steeply from the river, they saw the fire surge to­ward them through the Dou­glas fir, cedar and hem­lock.

“I looked at her and she said, ‘Go now,’” said Brown, 74, a re­tired truck assem­bly worker, de­scrib­ing the scram­ble of their es­cape. “Scari­est thing I’ve ever seen,” Cheri Brown added, stand­ing along­side her hus­band in an evac­u­a­tion camp across the river in Wash­ing­ton.

From Cal­i­for­nia to Utah and Mon­tana, thou­sands of others have also been forced to flee, and evac­u­a­tion or­ders were still in place ear­lier this month for 23 ac­tive fires in four states, with nearly 21,000 fire­fight­ers in the field across the re­gion.

Still, at least so far, the year is not a record, with 8.3 mil­lion acres burned as of mid-Septem­ber. More than 10 mil­lion acres burned in 2015, the worst fire sea­son in decades. But much of that land, as in pre­vi­ous years, was far from pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, in re­mote ar­eas of Alaska or western range­lands.

In stark con­trast, this year’s fires are lick­ing at peo­ple’s back doors or, in some cases, con­sum­ing the doors al­to­gether. While some of that is be­cause the fires are closer to ma­jor cities, there is an­other fac­tor.

“As the West be­comes more and more pop­u­lated, we’re see­ing more and more homes be­ing built in these ar­eas; the baby boomers re­tire, and they’re build­ing these homes all over, in nat­u­ral parts of the land­scape,” said Jes­sica Gardetto, a spokes­woman for the fed­eral Bureau of Land Man­age­ment. “We’re go­ing to see more sum­mers like this.” Closer prox­im­ity to fire also means more bad air, as well as dan­ger. Winds sent chok­ing smoke from the fires into ur­ban ar­eas from Denver to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Seat­tle and Boise, Idaho, have had more days of “un­healthy” air this year, as de­fined by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency — many of those in the past few weeks — than in any year since 2007. Vis­it­ing col­lege foot­ball coaches have wor­ried about how the smoke might af­fect the per­for­mance of their play­ers. Changes in for­est man­age­ment have also fanned the flames, spe­cial­ists say. Many ar­eas of the West — where tim­ber cut­ting has de­clined and even the thin­ning of trees for fire safety is some­times con­tested by con­ser­va­tion groups — are choked with younger, smaller trees that can burn read­ily, patches of thick un­der­growth or blighted ar­eas where in­sects or dis­ease have left dead trees stand­ing in place.

Shift­ing pat­terns in cli­mate and weather also caught fore­cast­ers off guard. Early mod­els of the fire sea­son said that last win­ter’s big moun­tain snows, which lasted deep into sum­mer in higher el­e­va­tions, would prob­a­bly keep many places damp. But then a se­vere heat wave set­tled in over a vast area from Mon­tana to North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and across the Pa­cific North­west, and some places went more than 100 days with no mea­sur­able rain­fall. Most of Mon­tana is suf­fer­ing an ex­tended drought. The heat and drought dried out grasses and shoots that had been nour­ished by the win­ter snows, turn­ing them into tin­der.

“The long-range weather mod­els that we had through the spring and to­ward sum­mer, they were just flat-out wrong,” said Bryan Henry, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist at the Na­tional In­ter­a­gency Fire Cen­ter, which co­or­di­nates wild­fire re­sponse.

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