Big Cle Elum blaze might be a glimpse into future

Weather, disease, poor management all increase fire risk

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photoCows stand in a pasture last week as a wildfire burns down a hillside near Cle Elum.

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SEATTLE -- Even before the evacuations, before the trees went up in bursts of red and orange, before lightning-fast flames flashed through dry grasses and reduced 63 homes and buildings to rubble, the experts knew: The Taylor Bridge wildfire could be a bad one.

Fire conditions were ripe in that stretch of Kittitas County.

But such predictions are no longer tough calls. The same could be said for much of the West.

In fact, the wildfire that scorched 23,252 acres last week between Cle Elum and Ellensburg offers a nasty glimpse of what fire experts fear may be all too common in the future.

Fire ecologists have warned for years that wildfire danger is too high, thanks to a century of fire suppression, decades of ill-conceived timber harvesting, a reluctance to thin out overly thick forests and a dramatic increase in the number of people living in the woods. Rising temperatures and pest invasions helped by a warming planet only make things worse.

None of that is new. But this is: In the past two years, efforts have been made to catalog the severity of forest decline. The results are sobering.

In the past decade, 21/2 times more acres of Washington pine, fir and spruce than in the 1990s were hit with infections such as blister rust, or invasions by insects such as the mountain pine beetle, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Three times more acres were damaged than in the 1980s.

Surveys in 2009 found more acres of sick forest than at any time in the previous 40 years.

In the next 15 years, the state projects, 3 million acres in Eastern Washington -- roughly one-third of the area's forestland -- will see significant die-offs or tree damage from bugs and disease.

"You can really see it from the air," said Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who flies frequently from Olympia to Eastern Washington. "I've been witnessing from the air the constant decline … as evidenced by all the dead and dying trees."

The region has experienced a few dry years, and a forest insect, the spruce budworm, has weakened many trees in the hills. In some areas, the Douglas fir and pine were packed tight from the ground to the crown. And the ground was covered in some places with a fair amount of dead timber and needles.

Plus, the region is gusty -- it includes one of the state's biggest wind farms.

Fire managers hoped to have the entire thing contained by late today. But with temperatures soaring to 95 degrees, fire activity was increasing.

Earlier this summer, Goldmark declared a "forest health hazard" in parts of several Eastern Washington counties, including Kittitas. That freed up $4.3 million for the state to start reducing the encroachment of fir trees into pine forests, encouraging the growth of larch and ponderosa pine and thinning small trees from the forest understory.

That's what fire experts agree is needed. But if hotter, drier weather continues to be the norm, it might not be possible to quickly do enough restoration to keep raging wildfires in check.

"Even if we do thinning and prescribed burns during the offseason, it's not really possible to catch up with all of it," said Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "They can make a dent in it, but everybody has the same conditions. There's just too much to do."

And the work may not always be enough.

Consider this: Last year, the Department of Natural Resources did fuel-reduction work, including thinning, in one of the most fire-prone areas of Kittitas County, a steep forested hillside near Highway 97 and State Route 970. Last week, that area became the most explosive portion of the Taylor Bridge fire.

"When you have 40 mph winds, there's little you can do to stop a fire," Goldmark acknowledged. "It all depends on the severity of the fire, and this, in some ways, was as bad as it can get."