By Doug McCutchen
Special to the Journal
“In 1912—I was 12 years old then—there was a big fire here on the west side. It was in the fall, September, after a dry spell. The fire started down by the beach. A 65-mph wind kicked up. The fire jumped from the tree tops and came up through here [Hannah property]. When it got caught in the mountain’s gullies we could beat it out.” – Nancy Larsen, On the Road with Gordon and Clyde,” Journal of the San Juan islands’ “Neighbors Magazine,” July 1992 p 9.
Throughout Western North America, the risk and occurrence of catastrophic wildfires is increasing each year and these islands are no exception. Changing our relationship with fire will help protect the health and safety of the people and ecosystems of the islands.
Fire has been an integral part of island ecosystems for thousands of years. Regular low intensity fires, whether naturally occurring or set by Coast Salish people, maintained low levels of wildfire fuel as well as more structurally complex and diverse habitats. Very few large scale fires have occurred since the middle of the 19th century.
Several independent research projects have found that major fires in the islands prior to 1860 averaged once every 7-15 years. Due to our remarkable ability to suppress fire, we are now averaging wildfires just once every 125+ years, resulting in an incremental loading of wildfire fuels and massive structural change in our natural areas.
State and Federal data bases show that the broad majority of fires in the county (88 percent) are ignited by humans. Regional population growth is rapid and we are seeing the results with increased tourism and development. Much of the new construction is in located in more remote parts of the islands, on our hills and at the end of narrow, dead-end roads. Our tourism peaks during the height of wildfire season.
Climate change is driving warmer temperatures which increase the length and intensity of that fire season. Prolonged periods of warm, dry weather, like we have experienced over the last few years, produce drought conditions which stress and kill vegetation, creating openings for insects and disease, further increasing the quantity of available fire fuels. Resources to control local fires are spread thin as the frequency, duration, and intensity of fires throughout the Western United States continues to grow.
With each passing year the mix of fuel, ignition, and weather conditions for wildfires is growing. Let’s not wait for “the big one”, but instead use the information we have in hand to make sensible decisions for the safety of our community and protection of our natural resources. Islands Climate Resilience invites you to learn more about the wildfire issue and explore solutions as we host “The Era of Megafires” with USFS Fire Ecologist, Dr. Paul Hessburg, 7 p.m., Sept. 20 at Brickworks. The presentation comes to on Lopez on Wednesday, Oct. 5 and Wednesday, Orcas on Oct. 12.
Much of this information was derived from the 2012 San Juan Islands Community Wildfire Assessment – available here.