Climate change increases risk of major island fire | Guest Column

  • Mon Jul 16th, 2018 7:00am
  • Life

By Jeffrey Bossler, Orcas Island

Back in the 70s and the 80s, when I worked with the U.S. Forest Service — burning thousands of acres of slash-off of clear-cuts in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest and fighting wildfires all over the west as a hotshot — wildfire season didn’t get started until about August. How things have changed!

Two recent fires – the Spring Creek Fire in Colorado and the Klamathon Fire on the California-Oregon border – started in the evening and overnight they both leaped to more than 20,000 acres. This explosive behavior has been seen on an upward trend for years now. Remember the harrowing fires in British Columbia Canada that erupted with the same veracity as a southern California brush fire? Lots of people became overnight armchair experts as to “why” this was, but I can tell you there is no single issue that tells even a tenth of the story. Things are different now, and there is no turning back to the “good old days.” Man is, for better or worse, an indispensable component of the ecosystem, and we have a lot of management to do.

The fire that burned an impression on my mind recently was the one that charred thousands of acres from Newhalem up the mossy canyon along Route 20 to the Diablo Dam in August 2015. We here in the San Juan Islands complacently think of ourselves as too coastal and insulated from what happens on the mainland. The facts may be quite different.

Most of us who have been working with nature in the Orcas woods for decades now perceive a shift in heat and precipitation, leading to hotter, longer and drier summers which create conditions conducive for fire. As of July 3, the U.S. Drought Monitor has all of western Washington state in “abnormally dry” and “moderate drought.” In the San Juan Islands, we are far more susceptible to wildfire, even in a normal year, than most any other area west of the Cascade crest because of the rain shadow that gives us our unique weather and all the Madrona trees.

I’ve been observing shocking examples of major nonmanagement and neglect representing obvious fire disasters just waiting to happen all over Orcas Island. I understand we’re all stressed out about things, overextended in mental bandwidth and short on money, but those things won’t matter when the flames are rushing up the hillside toward your house through the dry brush that stood untouched or unburned for years and decades.

So when the rains begin again and it’s safe to work in the woods without starting a fire from a spark from a chainsaw, remember that lots of people who are in the business of cutting, chipping and brush burning are looking for work in the rainy months. There are many in-county and online resources that can help you organize your priorities …and then follow through to do the actual work to reduce our fire hazards.