All dried out

Last weekend my wife and I went to Leavenworth, a small town in a spectacular

Leavenworth itself was in the middle of the 54,000 acre Entiat Fire of 1994

setting just east of the spine of the Cascades.  Fake Bavaria is home to such attractions as Der Dumm Hat Shoppe, Der Christmashausen, and Das Junkecrappestrasse, and is also is a great place to get away for golf, fishing, river rafting, and in our case, the most spectacularly fabulous wedding I have ever been guest to, equal parts love and warmth mixed with hootenanny and high hilarity.

We drove over on State Highway 97, a stretch of road over Blewett Pass that I had somehow gone 44 years without ever having been on.  The valley floor before the pass ascent was among the most beautiful places I have ever been, all rolling hills, one before the other, covered with long grasses and ringed about by the Cascade foothills and their stragglers to the east.  The hills were dotted with lodgepole pine, providing a picturesque backdrop to the pastoral farmland below.  I have not seen a landscape quite like it, so breathtaking in its painterly composition, in a very long time.

An aerial view of the devastation

This land has burned, and burned horribly, in the last several days.  On Monday, road crews working at the Taylor Bridge apparently touched off the long dry grass with a road torch.*  I find this hard to believe, that someone could leave a propane torch burning at the side of the road; what, are they too hard to light? (Open valve, spark.  Fire!  Idiot). 

The State’s first response was to bring in a couple hundred convicts from three minimum security prisons, because who is more disciplined and better at fighting fires than white-collar criminals and identity thieves?  After 24 hours and the spread from a few hundred acres to an estimated 29,000, our governor finally showed the leadership that has gotten her elected in two narrow-margined and disputed elections, and called out the National Guard–but

A grass fire can burn so quickly as it is driven by the wind that it can leave fuel behind which can be re-ignited when wind direction changes

only their helicopters.  As I write this, the fire currently covers 22,000 acres, has destroyed an estimated 100 structures, and is only 25% contained, with hot weather, wind, and electrical storms in the forecast.  Fortunately, there have yet to be any reported deaths; it will take quite a bit of time, however, to account for the livestock that evacuees had to leave behind.

The Taylor Bridge Fire is about an hour to the east of my home down the I-90 Autobahn, maybe 60 or so miles as the crow flies.  My home is in no risk, as the treeless Alpine zone of the Cascade range is between that fire and me.  However, for just the second time in the past ten years, the State of Washington has issued Red Flag fire warnings for most of WESTERN Washington for the next several days, including Seattle and other populous areas.  Including where I

When the grass fire gets to the forested foothills, it rapidly consumes the dry and pitch-laden lodgepole pines. The only good thing about this is that this is the germination strategy of lodgepole pine, which relies on forest fire as the natural means of forest progression. Not fires begun by inattentive road crews, however.

live.  Tinder-dry conditions and large electrical storms in the forecast make for an unusual set of circumstances for the rainy side of the state.

What most people don’t understand about Washington is that while it rains here, and it Rains A Lot, very little of it usually falls during the summer months–usually less than an inch per month.  We can have record rains for much of the year and still endure drought conditions in summer.  The record rains of June caused the rangeland grasses just to the east to grow long, and just a couple mild heat waves dried it to perfect wildfire fuel.  It only took a spark.  As I have watched this lovely area around Highway 97 burn, one of the biggest problems emerged that most homes had little, if any, Defensible Area around them: no fire breaks, no non-combustible borders, not enough distance between the grassland and the structures. 

A diagram depicting thirty feet of defensible space…or six times as much as I have.

My home, with its property restrictions firmly in place, has plants and trees growing to within FIVE FEET of the building envelope: local ordinance said it must be so, and above that I have massive trees overhanging my roof.  All of it just as dry as the surrounding woods, and on back to the more-than-one thousand acres of forested park and preserve behind me, plus the golf course.

My house is fiber-cement siding and a metal roof, but ANY structure will sustain fire damage when exposed to enough heat…and the heat from a forest fire is immense.  This gives me pause to poke just one more gaping hole in my stupid, stupid Mitigation Plan: fire defense.  It has been in the back of my mind for a while, brought to the fore by my local news.  I don’t need a

Like a giant torch overhanging my roof

lightning strike to cause a fire;  the middle school kids who are constantly lighting firecrackers at their blue-tarp-and-porch-couch fort in the woods just beyond the wetland can take care of that for me, or a golfer tossing a still-lit cigar away.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is there IS a risk, and I feel it, and this risk is made much, much worse by these senseless ordinances. 

I have good and hopeful thoughts for my neighbors just to the east, I wish for you to find all your horses and cattle and pets and belongings and the other things that make a life, and the swift regeneration of your forests and meadows.  Where you are now is almost like a literal hell, and I wish it were not happening to you, and hope it does not happen to me.

*Update, August 20: It is now believed that the fire started from sparks falling from a welding operation, but no matter.  There still should have been a fire watch and fire suppression equipment at the site.

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16 Responses to All dried out

  1. Chad B says:

    Calvin, I spent my honeymoon in Leavenworth in the middle of winter way back when. It was gorgeous. Snow everywhere, plenty of great local beer and the food was great. It really did feel like being in another country. I was struck by how quickly the mountains rose up from the earth.

    As for the fires, I share your hopes that the people of western Washington make it through this ordeal with their lives and as minimal loss as can be hoped for.

    • calvincaley says:

      That sounds awesome. I have been to Leavenworth in both summer and winter, I love it there. My favorite place to eat is Restaurant Andreas Keller. And the walk up sausage place at the end of the street. The recent addition of a number of winery tasting rooms and the Chelan Valley viticultural area only make it better, and definitely cancels out the hat place. I actually like the Christmas shop.

      The fire makes me sick to my stomach to see. California law says a 100 foot firebreak, here you can’t have one by Growth Management law. The people of that beautiful valley (it looked like the area around Durango, Colorado, as you approach from New Mexico) have had their homes taken away by stupid times three.

  2. This really sucks, and it’s heartbreaking to hear of such devastation caused by senseless individuals. We have had burn bans for several weeks now, but you still see smokers flicking lit cigarette butts out their car windows. Drives me mad. Thanks for this post. I’ve learned a couple things and thought about several others that I hadn’t considered before.

    • calvincaley says:

      Thank you, Mario. Even though we have all that forest behind our house, we are still just 50 feet from the street. I fear that also…fortunately, at least wildfire-wise, folks near to us are more likely to drive too fast because they are late for yoga than they are to smoke.

  3. Mike says:

    have you ever worked with the convicts? I worked with them for 5 years and each one of them worked harder than any of the fat state workers who would waddle around and say “its too unsafe” and sit in the rig while the fire rages on..I was apprehensive at first as well being 18 and having to work with groups of convicts who arent all from minimum security..i had a couple murderers on my crew..but they bust their ass and would have gave me the shirt off their back (or extra water) The convicts cook the firefighters food at camp also which was never bad, but it does get bland after 14 days on a fire..give them some credit they work hard day after day and do the nastiest work.

    • calvincaley says:

      Mike, I have absolutely no issue with the convicts, or anyone else on the fireline–here or anywhere else. My point only is that the good people of that valley were three times screwed: 1) by State policy that did not encourage and in some cases prevented adequate fire defense for these homes; 2) by a State-contracted road crew that either did not have adequate fire watch and fire suppression resources on hand for the work they were doing and who MAY have been doing that work in direct violation of a burn ban (which would have included welding work) 3) by a State Governor who waited 24 hours before bringing full resources to bear. The convicts in this particular situation may or may not have performed well-there has been no reports on their performance one way or the other–but they were chosen first for their cost-effectiveness and immediate and unquestioned availability. Those things may be ‘good,’ but they are not the same as ‘good leadership,’ or ‘good policy.’ I am certain that in those first 24 hours the people of the valley surrounding Highway 97 would have been happy with a class of kindergarteners with squirt guns. They deserve much better than they got–they should have received ALL resources available, and I understand that includes convicts. It merely should not have been ONLY convicts. I am sorry that my displeasure with the leadership of this state could even be remotely confused with criticism of anyone on a fire line.

  4. Mike says:

    just to add one thing…usually DNR is always first to respond..along with local fire departments for structure protection..they will assess the situation..more DNR is called in…then the convicts arrive later on under full supervision and leadership of trained DNR fire foresters and engine bosses to use them to their fullest potential. I can assure you that a few busloads of convicts were not first on scene. We would also drive around and warm people reminding them to keep a “defendable space” between burnables and their home…keep brush trimmed up..dont stalk pile brush in piles and so on…alot are not concerned…if you look through the pictures there are homes who survived (the ones who took the DNR’s advice). And its been an extremely hot and dry year. i fought plenty of fires in ellensburg and cle elum. Those people should know what to expect. Grassy fires can run 25mph in strong winds. I dont think we should enforce some policy just because people are stubborn. And you have to remember how fast this fire moved. Wind driven fires are very erratic and dangerous even for the firefighters. Im sure it was hard to judge the magnitude of this fire that first night. And those incident management teams know their stuff its quite the operation to watch. That fire was gonna happen sooner or later. The state cant just send everyone to the fire in the first 24 hours. Its like anything else..they follow proper chain of command…blah blah. I just think its one of those things that happens..just a shitty situation…it was hot, dry, and windy. Everyone lived and the community rallied together. I would say that counts as a win.

    • calvincaley says:

      Mike, I very much appreciate your insight into the mechanics of how wildfires are fought and by whom. Again, in no way did I intend criticism of local fire, DNR, or the convicts themselves, and I have nothing but admiration and respect for those who put themselves in harm’s way for the assistance of others. It was reported that our governor waited 24 hours–until receiving FEMA disaster notification–to bring first the National Guard air support and later full resource to this fire. This to me gives the impression of weighing budgetary concern ahead of public safety and does not in my opinion display bold leadership. I very much understand the concept of ‘defensible space,’ and get the fact that given known risk there are still some people who will choose to do nothing; I DID intend to criticize the portions of Washington’s Growth Management Act which can preclude the creation of ‘defensible space’ around a home, in contrast to California’s ordinances that mandate this type of space. I gave the example of my own home, which sits at the edge of over 1,400 acres of forest but by ordinance has vegetation to within five feet of the building envelope, as well as very large, very dry, and very pitch-laden evergreens and other trees growing right over it. If the DNR were kind enough to come by and recommend I create defensible space, I could not do it.

      I agree with you that if people do not want defensible space around their home, they should not be compelled to create it. I hold this belief because when my home was built into the clearing in which it stands there was an area 75 feet deep by 100+ feet wide behind it with little meaningful vegetation in it, and 20 feet on either side of the home (not counting the overhanging trees), and GMA law and local ordinance demands that I fill this space with plants virtually to the building walls. That is stupid.

      Those who fight forest and other wildfires are worthy only of my highest thought, and they get it. I am fairly shocked that there has been no loss of human life, as I understand how a grass fire works and know that Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun one. Certainly watching neighbors take up shovels and Pulaskis to help one another was inspiring. I merely do not like our State’s leadership and think that Washington’s Growth Management Act, and the county and municipal ordinances that follow from it, are scienceless, shortsighted, rife with abuses, and are born of a ‘We can’t do nothing, let’s just do something’ groupthink that can be quite damaging in a large number of ways, which is primarily what my blog is about, and was my intended point with this writing.

      I very much appreciate your visit and your insightful comments, and hope that you will continue to come by. My foremost goal is to be interesting and touch on a wide variety of topics and issues that interconnect in some way with learning to live in a heavily restricted patch of forest. That you found me makes me think I am doing it. If you are still a firefighter, I will hold my best thoughts for you also.

  5. I’m glad i found your site. I’ll have to bookmark it to blogs I follow. I presently live in Sweden and there mosses rule as king everywhere, even out in the open.

    On the fire note, I recently did a piece on the latest posterchild photo of defensable landscaping. I’m a former landscape supervisor who live in the Southern California backcountry for 24 years before coming to Sweden. I also have had opportunity to observe these later day MegaFires which are in no way historically natural. But what i took issue with in that photograph published all over the Net, is that not everything was as it seemed for saving that house. To much to go into, but the fire really was not the threat they made it out to be for which the smart defensable landscape saved the day. There was clear more going on than the cherry picked photos showed. I found other in between photos which told otherwise.

    I’ll get back again. I’ve written about mosses here in Svenskland, but from a soil building perspective.

    • calvincaley says:

      I am glad you found me too! As I expanded in my conversation with Mike, in writing about the Taylor Bridge fire, my primary criticisms have to do with 1) the role that State- or State-contracted road workers played in starting the fire, 2) the role that delay in bringing full resources to bear may have played in the fire’s spread out of control, and 3) the role that our State’s Growth Management Act and local land-use ordinance likely played in fire defense and risk to persons and property, and how those ordinances relate to my own property (which, by ordinance has ZERO defensible space). California has created land-use ordinance to address the defensible space issue, ordinance which supersedes other land use restrictions. Our state has land-use restrictions that trump any other concern. And THAT is a concern, for me and for anyone who might live in an area with appreciable fire risk.

      I am interested and am always open to greater education on issues and topics of which I am not expert. Mike greatly helped me to learn the logistics of wildfire fighting and if you have more to share I welcome it. I am happy to find another member of Bryophyte Club, and really enjoy how this humble, primitive, and oh-so-prevalent plant can draw people together. I hope you will subscribe and/or visit regularly.

      • I’ve actually written a few articles on Mega-Fires today verses the reality of the past and it is human idiocy which has created these horrific fire disasters. Especially with the latest findings of no matter what climate change anomalies may or may not have happened in the past Major Mega-fires did not exist in the tree canopies whether there were decades or centuries of hot temps with drought or cool temps with wet. The data shows the same moderate conditions.

        On your use of the word “primitive”, I never use that term with these organisms. I understand the evolutionary ideological reasons and philosophy for using such terms, but I prefer more of a foundational outlook with these species for which those so-called higher forms of life in any ecosystem would cease to exist if they were removed completely. I guess the only way I could illustrate it is like saying a water pump hose in my 1970 El Camino is nothing when compared to the 454 SS Chevy big block high performance engine which is excited to race with. Don’t cut those guys short, they’re bigger than the both of us. *smile*

      • calvincaley says:

        It has been suggested that mosses are the antecedent of the first organisms to take up residency on land…at one point I suggested that they were ‘followed closely by Mountain Beavers,’ a creature that plays havoc with my clearing and which has remained in evolutionary stasis for 50 million years or so…I was taken to scientific task for ignoring the eons, epochs, and interminable vacation slideshows which separated the establishment of land based life forms and the development of the rodent. In my defense, I was making a joke at the expense of Mountain Beavers, which I hate, and which were not there to defend their lack of evolutionary progress. From now on, I shall excise the word ‘primitive’ from my vocabulary of descriptors, unless I am speaking of my father. I am going to go with ‘early.’

  6. Oh I don’t doubt that they were the first vegetative lifeforms, it’s just that so often for me some of the scientific terminology needs to be updated and respect shown for the brilliantly engineered environment we live in. In so many ways science as a discipline has failed and the degenerate health of our planet proves this. I’m finishing a post dealing with the beneficial bacteria that encourage plants to close their pores in the presence of Pathogens. It’s really not new info as these things have been written about for well over a decade now. But that is not the type of science that rules agriculture or forestry. The Giant Corporations which shove their version of hightech science-based products down everyone’s throat through the uses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides chaps me.

    All those years I managed the commercial properties, I never used these. I used beneficial bacteria and fungi. When I first arrived everything was an infestation mess in more ways than one. I got it turned completely around thru a holistic approach and one year after my leaving and moving to Sweden it all collapsed because the guy who replaced me uses conventional Green Revolution Science-Based technology. Seriously, with all that is known now about the natural world, one still has to ask why these failed life threatening programs still run with global government blessings. somehow Monsanto comes to mind.

    At the moment the natural world here in Scandinavia is in the crapper. I have no idea what is going wrong but almost every species of tree and shrub is being attacked by various mildews, bad fungi and blight imaginable. Insect damage is also way up. None of the shrubs and most of the fruit trees have produced fruit, but there are a couple exceptions here and there. The worst hit is not necessarily people’s gardens, but the wilds in the forests. This is most unusual as forests of any kind are usually in balance and you almost never see attacks of any sort. Well, I’ll finish my post on the “Earth Internet” tomorrow about it with pictures.

    • calvincaley says:

      The science that rules agriculture and forestry is chemistry and economics to be sure; I have never used chemicals where I live now and where I used to live I went organic for all types of plant care in 2002. Sadly, the science that rules my world at the moment is the science of politics–to see what I mean, please read my series ‘green, or Green?’–which really isn’t too scientific (interestingly, when I was told to eradicate the thistles my blog gets its title from, the city biologists suggested glyophosphate). “Better gardening through chemistry” can result in anemic soils and robust-looking but constitutionally weak plants; but going the opposite direction, misconstruing the writings of Aldo Leopold as requiring that humans behave as though we don’t belong here, isn’t the right thing either. I tend to think our job is to be in the middle of our ecosystems managing and caring for them, acting as Nature’s helpmeet (that’s what I got out of The Sand County Almanac, anyway).

      I was in Alaska a few years ago and was shocked to see hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Sitka Spruce just plain dead standing up. I was told it was a blight. In the San Juan Islands near here, some type of moth killed huge swaths of Douglas fir…that was thirty years ago. Dutch elm disease got to the eastern portion of the US 60 or so years ago, and then we sent it back across the Atlantic. The smaller our world becomes, the easier it is for things like this to spread. I hope blights and diseases and infestations are cylclical, and that someone can figure out how to stop them without creating some other issue.

      A number of years ago, a friend remarked on the enormous increase in peanut allergies. I had read that peanuts are generally grown in rotation with cotton and with tobacco, the two most heavily pesticided and fertilized plants in the world. I wondered to him that perhaps the chemical residues left in the soil, and in which a ground crop like peanuts would literally marinate in, could create a systemic link from chemical to plant to soil to plant to child. I wonder still if this has ever been explored, but it would seem to me to explain a lot, and also show how closely even things which are not linked can be bound together.

      • I’ve run across many environmentalists who run on emotion rather than facts. Many are well meaning but are clueless when it comes to understand what actually takes place in the natural world. Most don’t dig deep into how the natural processes work in harmony with each other in cooperation as opposed to this flawed survival of the fittest mentality. Even But I’ve seen this since the 1960s when the whole Eco-movement and Earth first gang were created. I understand the emotion, but realistic intelligence & education is also required. Such extremism on that side is just as dangerous as the extreme behavior behind what motivates degenerate companies like Monsanto.

        I love the words of Suzanne W. Simard Professor Department of Forest Sciences who is from the University of British Columbia.

        “These plants are really not individuals in the sense that Darwin thought they were individuals competing for survival of the fittest, in fact they’re interacting with each other trying to help each other survive.”

        She created a wonder short video on these observations. The destructive flawed science of Monsanto and others is proof of how asinine and absurd their dangerous technology truly is. And despite all the evidence to the contrary, the money making chemical programs continue.

        On another Monsanto note, have you ever noticed that they removed the old label which stated in BOLD writing – “BIODEGRADABLE” ? That’s because it’s not and they knew this all along. I’m sure they were justifying it in terms of everything on Earth is eventually biodegradable. Even dangerous forms of radiation are biodegradable after countless 1000s of years. Unbelievable.

      • calvincaley says:

        I also have written about native plant communities, how the plants of a forest all contribute to forest succession. I will have to find out more about Prof. Simard, UBC is just about 150 miles north of here and we share the same biology/climate. I do not know how much of my writings you have read, but I am doing what I am doing because I am compelled to do so by city ordinance (though my home and restrictions are entirely unique even in my city). My struggle is to be legally obligated to assure the survival of 289 native plants in a planting space that had been maintained by nature as a clearing for over 70 years. Because of site hydrology, soil conditions, and animal pressures (chiefly Aplodontia rufia, Mountain Beaver), it is nearly impossible to keep any vascular plants alive for more that a few months. The original 289 plants were poorly chosen/poorly sited/poorly planted by a city-mandated planner, and rather that merely replace what I know to be doomed-to-fail plants, I have chosen to (attempt) emulate the natural progression and structure of a native climax forest. In doing so I have nearly tripled the number of plants in the original plan…however, I have about a 20% attrition rate every six months. From here, any plant that dies for lack of nutritive soil or animal forage will be replaced with moss, until I am back to the 289 plant threshold, at least. At that point, any plant that gets replaced will be replaced with a 4″ pot of Salal–because at this point one plant = one plant, in terms of overall number. I have spent almost $28,000 in total on this over the past two years, driven entirely by the nexus of Growth Management/Property Use law+City Biologist direction+Inadequate knowledge on the part of the Planner. All of these things arise out of the triumph of emotion over science. If it was a clearing long before I got here, it should have remained a clearing. I haven’t purchased garden chemicals in over a decade, but part of me just wishes I had taken the suggestion of the City biologist and the Planner and hosed the thistles and weed grasses down with Roundup…just to spite them.

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