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How wildfires are impacting outdoor recreation in Washington

Driven by climate change, more frequent blazes may change the way we hike, ski and camp.

By Andrew Engelson, Crosscut
Published: August 28, 2023, 6:04am
4 Photos
The Sourdough Mountain Fire.
The Sourdough Mountain Fire. (Courtesy of North Cascades Institute) Photo Gallery

The Sourdough Mountain wildfire, which started on July 29 and has now burned nearly 6,000 acres in the North Cascades, began as a tiny lightning-caused fire in a remote wilderness area.

“It’s daunting to think of this now, but it didn’t really raise an alarm in the first two or three days,” said Christian Martin, a spokesperson for the North Cascades Institute, which operates its Environmental Learning Center at the foot of Sourdough Mountain. As of Aug. 17, thanks to efforts by about 400 firefighters working to protect that center and other facilities near the town of Diablo, the learning center is still untouched by fire – for now.

But under guidance from the National Park Service, the North Cascades Institute evacuated staff and guests from the learning center, which provides environmental classes and outings to children and adults throughout the summer.

The Sourdough Mountain Fire is yet one more example of how climate change is transforming outdoor recreation in Washington.

In addition to causing widespread damage, wildfires can close trails, threaten to trap hikers and climbers and, after the fire is out, make mountain roads more susceptible to winter washouts. As Washington’s wildfire season now extends well into October, air quality plummets and the respite of clear mountain air many of us have taken for granted is no longer available. And in winter, snowfall and rain patterns are changing, forcing ski areas to shift their seasons and adapt.

Susan Prichard, a fire ecology research scientist at the University of Washington, says that climate change has resulted in warmer and drier conditions on average in the Pacific Northwest. “That means longer fire seasons on average,” she said. “What happens after that, in terms of wildfires, is somewhat capricious.” Prichard also noted that a century of fighting fires in the Pacific Northwest has left some forests, especially those east of the Cascade crest, under-burned.

Other forests, hit by recent human-caused fires, are over-burned. The conundrum is that some forests need more fire, while others need less.

Britt Davis, fire staff officer for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which covers some 1.7 million acres of the western side of the Cascade range, is concerned that fire seasons now last well into autumn. “We’ve had what’s called a season-ending rain every year in September,” Davis said. “I’ve never had one in October until last year.”

The Sourdough Mountain Fire that threatened the environmental learning center on the shores of Diablo Lake also prompted Seattle City Light to stop transmitting power from Ross and Diablo Dams, which provide up to 30 percent of Seattle’s electricity.

Jenn Strang, a spokesperson for Seattle City Light, said taking the dams offline helps prevent power lines from adding to the fire. “We’re focused on safeguarding infrastructure, but also energized power lines, which have the ability to cause fire themselves,” Strang said, noting that particles in smoke can cause arcing between the lines and start new fires.

Power lines are thought to have sparked the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, which killed 85 people.

Though Highway 20 reopened to limited traffic on Wednesday, most of North Cascades National Park remains closed because of the Sourdough Mountain Fire. Although the conflagration has threatened human infrastructure in the Skagit River Gorge, it’s actually the sort of naturally occurring fire you’d expect to see in the western Cascades, Prichard says.

“It’s a good fire,” she said. “What’s sad is that it happens to be right next to Diablo Dam, the environmental learning center, and Ross Lake Resort. And it’s in very steep terrain.”

This is in contrast to last year’s Bolt Creek Fire, which burned more than 22 square miles of the western Cascades north of Skykomish. The Forest Service believes it was most likely caused by people, not lightning. The 14,000-acre wildfire began last September and continued to smolder into mid-October.

Human-caused wildfires such as the Bolt Creek Fire are on the rise, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In 2020, more than 1.5 million acres of forests in the Northwest were burned by fires started by people, and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources estimates that 85 percent of wildfires in the state were human-caused.

The smoke from those fires, which blanketed the Puget Sound region for weeks, happened in part, Prichard says, because autumn rains that generally put a damper on fires arrived late, and because western-Cascades forests have heavy, coarse wood and deep organic soils. “They smolder, and that smoke is so potent, and terrible,” she said. “Even with some wetting, smoldering fires can continue to burn.” She noted that it’s possible for these types of low-intensity fires to continue to smolder under snowpack all winter long.

For Martin of the North Cascades Institute, the sad irony is that many of the nonprofit organization’s classes and programs focus on the impact of climate change and the importance of wildfire in the ecology of Northwest forests. The institute has canceled many of its programs this year, and last summer the learning center closed for five weeks because of air quality concerns.

Martin said that one program cut short by the Sourdough Mountain Fire in August was a 10-day backcountry wilderness camping trip for high school students designed to teach them about the impact of climate change in North Cascades National Park, including melting glaciers, lower water levels and their impact on Chinook salmon and increased wildfire intensity.

“The smoke was literally above their heads as they were learning about this,” Martin said.

“We understand the role of wildfire in ecosystems and how it creates habitat for animals and refreshes the forest. It’s a natural phenomenon, and yet we’re stuck in the middle. This is good and normal – and also this is not normal.”

Hiking takes a hit

Last September, my teenage daughter and I were some of the hikers forced to self-evacuate because of the Bolt Creek Fire. We were lucky to be hiking the West Fork Foss River trail south of Skykomish, so we were never in imminent danger, and certainly didn’t face a harrowing escape like the one that two hikers documented in a video they took while fleeing the fire during a hike on Baring Mountain.

It was nevertheless disconcerting and disappointing to have to cut short our backpacking trip because of yet another late summer wildfire.

For hikers such as Kindra Ramos, chief programs officer at Washington Trails Association, the past five years have demonstrated that in addition to wildflower season and berry season, there’s now a wildfire season to pay attention to.

“In addition to changing where you can hike, obviously,” Ramos said, “it also requires a new skill set for hikers to learn.”

The organization’s website, long  a crucial resource for finding hikes and posting and checking up on recent trail and mountain road conditions, now includes real-time data on active fires as well as current air quality alerts on its hike finder map.

And it’s not only active fires that impede hikers; areas hit by fire can take years to naturally recover before they’re safe and accessible. Ramos notes that often the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service will close mountain roads and trails for several years as the landscape heals after a fire rolls through an area. Risks from “widow-makers” – large, burned trees with significant risk of falling – are real.

And mountainsides left barren by an intense burn can increase runoff and the likelihood of trail and road washouts. “[Fires] are taking out trails faster than we can restore them,” Ramos said.

The Washington Trails Association’s trail maintenance program, which utilizes 120,000 volunteer hours each year to restore and repair trails, isn’t adequate to keep up with the backlog, Ramos says. In addition, fires and poor air quality forced cancellation of 10 of the organization’s trail maintenance trips last year.

Ramos says that during fire season, hikers need to keep apprised of weather conditions and think ahead about alternate ways out of a hike if a wildfire suddenly flares up. Since cell phone service is generally nonexistent in the wilderness, it’s important to carry a physical topographic map. And it’s critical to heed evacuation warnings or change plans if you see evidence of fire, she said.

“It’s common sense and also the hardest thing to do sometimes: If you’re not sure, turn back.”

Davis at the Forest Service says it’s especially important for hikers to pay attention to the National Weather Service’s “red flag” warnings that indicate risk of new wildfires starting – issued when there’s a combination of high heat, low humidity and high winds. “It’s like a high-level avalanche warning,” Davis said. “If you’ve got that and a small fire starts upwind of you, you’re in danger.”

Davis said it’s critical that campers obey campfire restrictions – and notes that recently people have been ignoring those restrictions more than ever. On Aug. 16, the Forest Service announced it had banned all campfires in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “I figured last year after Bolt and Loch Katrine [a fire that burned in the Cascades 35 miles east of Seattle], that people’s awareness would be way up,” Davis said. “But it’s like there’s no memory. The resistance we’re getting is way higher than anything I’ve seen.”

Prichard recognizes our primal attraction to campfires, but has concluded it’s probably time to ban them entirely. “I think that as a society, we might need to let those go in the middle of summer.”

Ski seasons shifting

In the winter, climate change is also causing changes. According to Emma Brice, a spokesperson for Crystal Mountain, a ski resort near Mount Rainier, snowpack hasn’t been significantly lower, but ski seasons are starting later and lasting longer.

“We’re seeing later starts to our winters, and sometimes skiing into May or June,” she said.

When there’s low snow in November and December, Crystal relies on 40 snow-makers to generate snow on a small portion of the ski runs.

Prichard, who lives in Winthrop, the central Washington town renowned for its cross-country skiing, has observed that winters in the Cascades have generally been warmer and wetter. “We’re still getting some snowpack with those warmer winters, but the snow is definitely not staying as long. And the quality of the snow is worse. We’re getting a lot more rain-on-snow events.”

A study published in 2021 estimates that annual snowpack in the Cascades could decline by 25 percent by 2050.

For its part, Crystal Mountain has advocated for the Washington Legislature to address climate change, including through the Washington Clean Energy Bill passed in 2019 that requires the state to generate all its electricity from clean energy sources by 2045. The resort is also providing free, priority parking to skiers in carpools of four or more, as well as a shuttle bus from Enumclaw and eight electric vehicle charging stations.

Prichard says her two children, now college-age, grew up cross-country skiing, and the changes she’s seeing make her especially sad. “They love snow, and to see our winters melt away is tragic, and it makes me really afraid for the future.”

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Ramos echoed that sense of grief associated with changes to hiking access. “There’s this personal sense of loss,” she said, “And a sense that if we aren’t working to actively address this, we’re going to continue to lose more. It won’t be a month, it will be forever.”

It’s not all hopeless, however. Washington Trails is working to restore trails affected by wildfire, and has created a new “pro crew” made up of skilled, paid trail-repair specialists who take eight-day trips into more remote locations that volunteer crews can’t easily reach. “A lot of it is really focused on fire recovery. They’re clearing trees, really improving the stability of trails and looking at the longer-term issues of drainage.”

Crews working in the Entiat Valley of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest over the past five years have removed hundreds of downed trees from trails there that were hit by a lightning-caused fire in 2015. “They’re doing a ton of amazing work to bring back these trails that have essentially been lost and closed for years,” Ramos said.

Still, there are plenty of gorgeous hikes one still can’t get to. Personally, Ramos is disappointed that Heliotrope Ridge, a stunner of a trail that leads to the foot of a glacier on Mount Baker, is inaccessible because of a road washout. The Glacier Creek Road was damaged by record rainfall and flooding in November 2021 – a severe weather event that was likely associated with climate change.

“That’s always been a place that feels like a sampler of all that’s great about hiking in Washington,” she said. “And to have that access closed is devastating.”

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.