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