In Eastern Washington State, we like to think that fire season ends on Labor Day, because usually it does. It's been a hot, dry summer, with the last rain in early July and the last significant rain in June. That weather pattern goes by the name of "summer" here - there's nothing unusual about it. That's why, since 80% of the county I live in is Federal land, mostly National Forest or Park, we're also a high fire danger area.
About a month ago, a crew working on a bridge near Cle Elum - about 90 minutes south of here, about 90 minutes east of Seattle on I90 - ignited a fire that grew to over 26,000 acres in under 18 hours, and destroyed 52 homes, many of them expensive vacation homes. But it's been several years since a major fire has occurred nearby. And it's rare to lose homes in fires here.
Fires do get close. The 1994 Tyee Fire, started by a lightning strike, burned over 135,000 acres for 33 days before it was contained - it was contained a couple of weeks before Labor Day though - and burned to within 50 feet of where my house now stands. The house was built 2 years later. Since we've lived here, big fires - tens of thousands of acres - have burned to within 3 miles, and ash and debris falls have clogged our swimming pool filter.
Update 2:More photos here
The last two summers we've had what in our neighborhood have come to be called "helicopter fires" - fires on the hills behind our house, just over the ridge behind us, within a mile, but doused by helicopters before growing to more than a few acres. Nothing to get excited about.
Last week the Smokey the Bear sign on the highway into town had the fire danger level raised to "Very High" ("Extreme" is the highest level, and we often reach it). Last night was the second most intense thunderstorm I've ever experienced. The most intense was a few months ago. Lighting flashed incessantly, and thunder rattled the windows. Rain followed - 0.06 inches on our rain gauge.
This morning we were happy not to smell smoke - although lightning started fires in back country often aren't evident for a few days. It was a warm, breezy, sunny day. Later in the day checking the internet turned up a news story that over 50 fires had been started by the storm in Eastern Washington, the worst about an hour south of us (by road, closer as the embers fly) in the area between Wenatchee and Leavenworth.
Around 5PM, my brother-in-law called. He lives next door, but is in Seattle picking up his sister at the airport. Someone local had called him and said fire engines were heading up US97 to Navarre Coulee, which is a 10 mile stretch of highway that runs from the lake to the Columbia River. The lake end is about 2 miles from us. There was a fire in the coulee, on the river end, in July, but it was put out pretty quickly and didn't get too large.
There was nothing on the internet (not unusual), and the local radio station does Spanish language broadcasts on Sunday evenings, so I got in the car and drove down the coulee towards the river. No fire in the coulee, but the last mile I could see and smell smoke, and when I got to the highway/river, the smoke was heavy. I couldn't tell where the fire was, but it was a very safe distance from us.
I drove back up the coulee, and as I was going through the switchbacks that lead down to the lake and our county road, the local fire chief passed me going in the opposite direction, lights flashing. When I turned into the dirt county road that leads to our house, there was a fire engine from the local department, with half a dozen volunteer firefighters in full gear milling around. I stopped and talked to one of the firefighters - there was a "smoker" on top of one of the ridges up our canyon. They'd been watching it from town all day and it hadn't been doing much, but they were thinking of maybe hiking in to deal with it. The chief was heading for higher ground to get a better look at the fire.
Two miles up the county road, just before the turn into our private road, there was a brush rig (a smaller fire engine) parked. I stopped and talked to those firefighters for a while too - one was a neighbor, the other had spent 10 days on the Cle Elum fire mentioned above. We talked a little about roads and access in the area (not everything is on a map and maps aren't always right - plug my address into Google maps, for instance, and you'll get a neighbor's house nearly 2 miles away; last year it was a different neighbor only a mile away). They said the fire was small and located a couple of ridges back from our house, so there was no reason to worry.I let all of the neighbors know and called my brother-in-law in Seattle back.
Update: I forgot to add that a grainy picture of our fire is here. It may not impress you, but my house is just a little below the bottom of the white circle in the photo.
During dinner, other neighbors farther up the canyon called - they could see the smoke, which we couldn't, so after dinner I drove over there to get an idea of where the fire was. It's a couple miles away and uphill from us. Fires burn slowly going downhill, and this one would have to do that twice to get to us - if it wasn't for the 20-30MPH winds with gusts over 40MPH that started this afternoon and will continue until late tomorrow night. Winds blow embers and start what are called "spot fires" downwind from the main fire - sometimes as much as 3 miles ahead of the fire front, easily from ridge to ridge to our back yard if the fire grows enough.
So I came back home, turned on the sprinklers that cover the area in front and east side of the house that can be adjusted to soak the front porch as well if necessary. The sprinkler to cover the west side of the house is on a separate hose which isn't connected normally. The fitting to connect it to the hose spigot was shot, so I had to dig around and find a replacement for that. Then, when I got it working, the sprinkler head (the kind that gracefully move from one side to the other and then chatter back to start over) had two modes of operation: either stuck in one place not moving, or rotating in a complete circle, soaking the porch and side of the house. I left that off, not wanting to soak the porch until it became necessary.
Doing the numbers, only 3% of fires grow to more than 20 acres; most are extinguished or contained below that. People like to observe that most fires are human caused. That's true, something like 2/3s of fires are started by humans. But it also isn't comforting, because the important statistic is that 75% of acres burned in a typical year are in fires started by back country lightning strikes, usually in roadless areas, like our fire, like the Tyee Fire which crossed our property. But so far we don't smell smoke or have ash falling - the wind is blowing the fire away from us at the moment.
Later, I took the dog for a walk - he's old and doesn't like to go to far from the house alone. As we were coming back through the woods, I heard a helicopter not too far away and strained to get a glimpse of it through the tree tops. The trees in that stretch are over 100 feet tall, and the helicopter was actually on a line of sight below the tree tops, staying closer to the ridge tops in the distance. It was frustrating until we got out of the woods and into the driveway, and could see the chopper still circling.
I was hoping to see a water bucket dangling from the helicopter, but no such luck. The next best alternative would be that it had just dropped a Forest Service rappeller crew to cut fire lines around the fire. The distance to the fire is only a few miles, but given the terrain - and no roads - it's probably a 5 or 6 hour hike, so they sometimes drop crews in by helicopter. I don't know if that's the case, and the least attractive alternative is that the chopper was just observing the extent of the fire. Still, our fire is getting attention, which is a good thing on a day like this, with fire crews and resources spread thin on a number of fires, and a lot of firefighters gone back to college, teaching school, driving school bus, or whatever it is they do after Labor Day, when we like to think that fire season is over.
Update 2: More photos here. The photos in the top row were taken in Navarre Coulee - there is a fire there now, too. It looks like it's on the river end of the coulee, but it's hard to tell. The smoke I ran into there yesterday, though, was probably from fires either near Wenatchee, 35 miles south of us, or Mansfield and Grand Coulee on the Columbia Plateau, 25 to 50 miles east of us.
The second photo down shows Saturday night's storm that caused all of this, and the third photo down is the fire behind us, taken last night.The "sawtooth" ridge is Stormy Mtn, which peaks at a little over 7000 ft. The fire is a few miles east of the peak down the First Creek drainage, at around 2500 to 3000 ft.
The sun is coming up now and it's very windy, although not howling like it was a few minutes ago. My guess is that will ground air support, making a larger fire more likely (along with the resource requirements of the many other spots burning now). We have a wind gauge, but it's too low to get an accurate indication of speed, and given the terrain around here, over a 15 minute period, the wind will appear to be coming from nearly every point on the compass. We had a little smoke smell last night, but there are now fires in every direction from our house, so that doesn't provide an indication of which way the closest fire is being blown. However, as close as it is, there's still no ash or embers, which is a Good Thing.
Update 3: A helicopter dragging a water bucket just flew over (10:30PDT), which is encouraging. When daylight finally hit, I found out the reason we didn't smell smoke is that it's going directly overhead. Last night there was barely enough smoke rising to clear the ridge. This morning there's a plume miles long, but pretty dispersed by the wind. The chopper last night was dropping a fire crew, and there was also at least one retardant drop last night. Our high pressure pump, connected to a 16,000 gallon fire tank (my wife thinks it's a swimming pool) is fueled and primed and checked out with fire hose connected, although I sincerely hope if it's needed, I'll be long out of here.