Northwest Wildfires Could Become More Common

Aug 21, 2012
Originally published on February 4, 2013 4:46 pm

CLE ELUM, Wash. – Fire crews continue to fight wildfires in central Washington, south and central Oregon and southern Idaho. Some residents of Cle Elum and Ellensburg, Washington are just trying to get back home. Others don’t have a home to come back to. Forestry experts say these types of large wildfires could become more common across the West in the coming years. Correspondent Anna King has this story from the scene of the Taylor Bridge fire.

Just about two miles from where the Taylor Bridge fire began, Steve Moore and Dave Johnston were unloading an old rusty truck from a flatbed. The men plan to use it for parts. Dave Johnston was in a bit of a hurry -– he didn’t want to be late for dinner.

“If I don’t get home tonight, my wife said I’d be in divorce court tomorrow," Johnston says. "Not leave her anymore around here without being home during the fire season here.”

His wife Patsy wants Johnston home as soon as possible because she had to evacuate by herself when the massive fire ripped through her rural neighborhood. Some of their neighbors’ homes burned down.

“By guess and by golly we made it out of there," Johnston says.

"It was (pretty frightening.) When you know that fire is coming and the winds blowing and your house is the next to go, it’s the scariest thing in the world. And people that have never fought a fire or been around it, it’s the wind and what those poor firemen go through out there fighting the fire.”

There are some other more long-term factors contributing to the fire risk in the Northwest. Many experts say decades of fire suppression, logging and replanting practices have left many of our forests thick with small trees and underbrush. That makes disease and insect infestations more common.

“Over the last 30 years we’ve planted billions and billions of trees and which we have literally abandoned now and we expect them to act like natural forests," explains Debbie Miley, Executive Director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association. "Well they are never going to again. If you never manage them you’re going to wind up with these tinder boxes that cause large-scale fires.”

Washington state’s Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark agrees.

“The deteriorating forest health situation across all forested lands in the West, and particularly in Washington as well, is increasing the incredible risk that when starts occur … that the resulting wildfire can be much more difficult and expensive to contain.”

Another factor could be climate change. One study in June published by the Ecological Society of America’s Ecosphere, indicates that climate change is making parts of the Earth more prone to wildfires -- including the Western U.S.

Meanwhile, in downtown Cle Elum, residents who’ve lost their homes or who can’t return home are staying in hotels, with friends or in vacation rentals.

Other residents are trying to bolster their neighbors and the hard working firefighters who have been battling the blaze and the intense summer heat.

Fifteen-year-old Chase Stanley stood with his siblings on the sidewalk outside their home. They held signs up for passing motorists that said “Thank you firefighters” and “honk.”

“We’re just trying to show everybody that the community cares for the firefighters and show that law enforcement, medical people and everybody have to do a really important job to save lives and have a really big responsibility on their shoulders.”

With more than 50 homes burned down, injured animals and many residents still unable to return home -- healing this wound will undoubtedly take more time.


Deborah Wang and Chris Lehman contributed to this report.

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