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A Smokey Bear sign stands around earth that was scorched by a fire in Pateros, Washington.

Smokey Bear warns of the high danger of fire along Route 97, after it was scorched by the four-blaze Carlton Complex fire northeast of Seattle, Washington, on July 19, 2014.

Photograph by David Ryder, Reuters

Warren Cornwall

for National Geographic

Published August 13, 2014

Despite the extremely dry conditions in drought-afflicted southern California, the summer's most destructive fires have struck the Northwest and northern California, giving the region the unusual distinction of being the center of this year's wildfire season.

Washington and Oregon account for nearly half of the 2.5 million acres burned by wildfires this year. Over the past decade, only about 7 percent of the total acreage burned per year has been in the Northwest. Meanwhile, the fire-prone Rocky Mountain West and Southwest have been relatively quiet.

This week, the situation in the Northwest could become more dire as unusually hot weather and lightning storms threaten to stoke more fires.

Across the country, 39 large wildfires were burning Wednesday, covering 714,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. All but eight are in Washington, Oregon, and California.

Firefighters are trying to subdue a handful of new fires in Washington, while mopping up the remains of the largest wildfire in state history, the Carlton Complex fire. On Monday President Barack Obama declared part of the state a disaster area, authorizing federal assistance to repair damaged public infrastructure. Officials also announced a ban on outdoor burning on state lands.

In eastern Oregon, high winds are making it tricky to corral the 64,000-acre South Fork Complex fire, while in northern California, firefighters continue to battle the 10,700-acre Lodge fire in Mendocino County. Eight firefighters were hurt last Friday when that fire overran them, while at another northern California wildfire on Monday, three firefighters had to deploy emergency shelters to escape that blaze.

An aerial photo of the fire near Carlton, Washington.
In this aerial view of the Carlton Complex fire, the burned areas appear darker brown in comparison to the unburned brushlands and grasslands (tan) and forests (green). The fire is the biggest in Washington state history.
Photograph by NASA Earth Observatory

Weather Factors

Nationwide, roughly half the typical acreage has burned. The fire season had promised to be a bad one, with a prolonged drought leaving vegetation tinder-dry across the West. But the circumstances that spark sprawling conflagrations didn't materialize in many places, said Ed Delgado, head of the U.S. Forest Service office that predicts wildfire hazards.

In the Southwest, lightning strikes ignited fires, but then cooler weather helped squelch them. Moist air that sweeps north from Mexico in July arrived on schedule, bringing fire-smothering rains to the Southwest, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Delgado said.

"They just didn't have a prolonged period of time that would allow fire to get established and build on itself," he said.

In southern California, the Santa Ana winds that drive wildfires blew briefly in May, but haven't been much of a presence since.

The Northwest wasn't so lucky. Lightning storms in mid-July coincided with a wave of hot, dry weather. A string of fires started, including the Carlton Complex fire in central Washington state, which scorched a record 256,000 acres and more than 400 structures.

Just 55 miles from the center of the Carlton Complex fire, 32 people near the little town of Keller were evacuated from the approaching Devil's Elbow Complex fire. By Tuesday morning it had burned 20,000 acres and threatened 150 homes. It was just 7 percent contained, and the weather forecast wasn't promising. It called for "lots and lots of lightning and some crazy winds," said fire spokesperson Sarah Gracey. "The Northwest has just been crazy this year."

Personnel, Resources Strained

Gracey's presence in Washington testifies to the strain this fire season is putting on the region's firefighters. She works for the state of Kentucky, but was brought in to lend a hand. People from 23 states were involved in the Devil's Elbow Complex fire, from as far away as Florida, she said.

Despite the slower fire season, the Forest Service still predicts that by the end of August, the agency will exceed the $1.3 billion earmarked for firefighting across the U.S.

The state of Washington has already burned through the $19 million budgeted for firefighting there this year, and the season is far from over, said Albert Kassel, head of firefighting for the state's Department of Natural Resources.

The lightning from thunderstorms expected through Wednesday could spark new fires. But the rain and cooler weather could also help dampen them. By the weekend, when warmer, drier weather is predicted, it will be more apparent what challenges firefighters will face in the coming weeks, Delgado said.

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2 comments
jim adams
jim adams

And a 2nd comment on why forest fires are such a big deal ---


Uncared for forests are prone to burn, often at the worst possible time causing the greatest damage. It's way worse than annoying. On the other hand, cared-for forests have very few devastating fires.


A fascinating book, "Americas Ancient Forests" describes the changing forests of our country from the end of the glaciers to the present. It also documents how Native Americans cared for the forests for the last 10,000 years.


Most Native Americans lived in association with forests, and fire was a major tool they used to keep the forests friendly to their life styles. A forest, burnt at the right times of the year every few years, will burn slowly; not harm the trees; keep the forest perpetually producing blackberries, blueberries, deer, herbs of many kinds; keep down accumulated fire hazards, and deal with tree over-crowding before it becomes an issue.


Native Americans cared for the forests they lived in and didn't care for the forests they didn't live in -- like lodgepole pine forests among others. And when those burnt, they created deadly infernos


In any case, we Euro Americans looked at the forests which Native Americans had spent 10,000 years tending and thought they were wonderful. As we took over the continent, we also took responsibility for the forests and at the same time, we quit caring for the them except as sources of resources like wood. We created -- in our ignorance -- the forests-as-fire hazards that we have today.


Today, we no longer live in nor depend on the forests the way the Native Americans did. They did small tended burns every 3 to 5 years and kept the amount of burnables in the manageable range. Today, we have huge tracts of uncared for forests which in these days of global warming --- we have a lot of forests-as-fire-hazards in our nation. The North West fires of this article are prime examples.


As i see it, we have 3 major directions we can take into our future: (1, Take on training ourselves to care for our forests so we don't have these devastating fires. (2, Create fire zones where we let fires burn till they go out on their own. (There would be a lot of fights about the limits of these), and (3, Continue doing what we are doing -- working our butts off to put out fires as fast as possible -- with a big investment in fire equipment and trained people

jim adams
jim adams

I'm curious -- where is the smoke blowing to? Particularly the soot microparticles?


This could add a lot of darkening to the surface of the Greenland Glacier, if the winds are going that direction. To me, this is one of the scarier parts of Global Warming -- the feedback loop of increased dryness in the northern forests causing more and larger forest fires sending more soot to the ice caps causing more rapid ice cap melt, causing the glacial surface to get darker and darker, raising Arctic temperatures faster (4 degrees C at present compared to 1 degree C temperature raise for the world as a whole) than anywhere else in the world which severely changes world weather patterns and drys the northern forests --- etc. Someone wrote that wildfire season is now all year instead of the late summer/early autumn fire seasons of yesteryear.


National Geographic, 6/2010, Melt Zone shows what soot does on ice. Also, theweathernetwork.com (July 14th) has a short article and a 2 minute video showing drones-eye-view-reveals-just-how-polluted-and-soot-covered-greenlands-glaciers-have-become.

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