Opinion

This fire year, it’s more than acres

Steve Surgeon surveys the ruins after he lost everything he owned except his home in a wildfire on the outskirts of Okanogan Aug. 23. He said he stayed as the fire raced over a ridge and barreled down toward his home, flames lapping just feet from his back porch. Surgeon estimates he lost more than $100,000 worth of property, including his shop, his motorcycle, several cars, a travel trailer and all of his tools.
Steve Surgeon surveys the ruins after he lost everything he owned except his home in a wildfire on the outskirts of Okanogan Aug. 23. He said he stayed as the fire raced over a ridge and barreled down toward his home, flames lapping just feet from his back porch. Surgeon estimates he lost more than $100,000 worth of property, including his shop, his motorcycle, several cars, a travel trailer and all of his tools. AP

Wildfire records are always interesting. We keep score by acres burned. The Carlton Complex of 2014, the state record holder, burned the most Washington ever at 256,000 acres. The sum of the fires known as the Okanogan Complex, now burning out of control, surpass that by a few thousand, but those are not contiguous – at least four fires with four ignition points, not yet joined.

They may get the top spot yet. I’m not rooting for them, but bragging rights appear to be up for grabs.

The human cost is not measured in acres. The tragedy of both Carlton and Okanogan fires is beyond measure and beyond compare. I will never think of the 1992 Castle Rock Fire, with 30 Wenatchee residences destroyed, as a small affair, even with the puny acreage, and I will never forget the Sleepy Hollow Fire and the destruction and fear it brought, even though it won’t make the megafire list at just 3,000 acres.

I recently had an old-timer drop by and ask if, in my memory, there were two worse fire years back to back than 2014 and 2015. Not in my experience, I said. Not even close. But, I’m only 62 years old.

People say this is the new normal. Being neither scientist nor climatologist, I cannot say. Famed weather blogger and University of Washington professor Cliff Mass says no, and posts a graph from the National Interagency Fire Center showing cumulative acres burned in Washington and Oregon still in the “normal” range.

The latest graph shows us breaking the 600,000-acre barrier and edging very close to “above normal” territory, with acres burned at 124 percent of “average.”

Nationally this year is looking dismal. Acres burned, so far, are at 7.6 million. That dwarfs the 2014 total of 3.6 million acres. It may near the 9.3 million acres of 2012, or the 9.9 million acres of 2006, which is the worst year since 1960, says the National Interagency Fire Center.

Is there a trend? Are things getting worse? Interpreting statistics is not my strength, but I can say that some people think so.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell ranking member, points out that “megafires” of 100,000 acres or more are increasing in frequency “exponentially.” They averaged less than one a year prior to 1995 and nearly 10 a year since 2005.

Big fires, of course, are not new in the West. The fire that held the state’s record until the Carlton Complex burned through it, was the Yacolt Burn of 1902, which flamed over 238,000 acres and killed 65 people in Southwest Washington and the Columbia Gorge.

The acreage total may be deceiving, since the fire started in Oregon before jumping the river, and was part of a series of burns that consumed at least 700,000 Northwest acres in a matter of days. The fires dropped an inch of ash on Portland and blacked out the sky in Seattle. The National Interagency Fire Center sets it at more than a million acres.

Then there was the famous Big Burn, the Great Fire of 1910 that covered 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana and killed 85 people. Fires burned 125,000 acres from Entiat to Lake Chelan in 1970. In 1988 the Yellowstone fires burned 1.5 million acres.

We will not forget 1994, when the Tyee Creek, Rat Creek and Round Mountain fires took nearly 200,000 Chelan County acres and 37 structures. Then 2001, the Thirty Mile Fire in the Methow killed four firefighters.

It’s a long list – Tripod Complex, Okanogan County, 175,000 acres in 2006; Deer Point, Chelan County, 43,000 acres in 2002; Rex Creek, Chelan County, 50,000 acres in 2001; Fawn Peak, Okanogan County, 81,000 acres in 2003 …

On, and on it goes. We live with fire, and we know that. But however you measure it, by acres or homes or lives lost, 2015 hurts badly.

Tracy Warner is editorial page editor at The Wenatchee World. Email him at warner@wenatcheeworld.com.

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