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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.

Originally posted to badger on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 08:44 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Republished to Backyard Science (16+ / 0-)

    Stay safe and keep us posted.

    I came for the politics and stayed for the science.

    by bwren on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 09:26:26 PM PDT

  •  Closer than ever tonight here as well-- (14+ / 0-)

    the Casper Mountain "Sheep Wagon Hill" (Incident 3246) fire started this afternoon at about 4:30 MDT and has quickly grown. I am way west, for now, of this fire but I know people in the path and I am very familiar with the part of the mountain that is ablaze. We have been lucky here this year because the drought has also left us in dearth of thunderstorms. The last hot embers to fall on my house came in 2006 when fire took most of the north face of Casper Mountain's west end. But our mountain is like much of the west--mature lodgepole and ponderosa mixed with limber pine, much of it dead or dying from pine beetles. That large of a standing fuel load at 6 to 10% humidity will doom us eventually. All any of us can do is hope for an early winter with plenty of snow. Stay safe.

    •  One of the only good things about late season fire (14+ / 0-)

      is that the cooler temperatures and higher humidity that go along with that can slow down the spread of the fire and keep the intensity a little lower. At least that's how it works here - we'll be down in the 40s tonight, and are forecast to drop from highs in the 80s to the upper 60s for a few days early in the week.

      Hopefully that's happening in the drought stricken areas as well.

      We've been lucky this year that our nearby fires have been outside of "fire weather" - highs in the 90s, RH below 10% and breezy. We had a little more than our usual spell of that kind of weather,  but fortunately no fires during it.

      In Soviet Russia, you rob bank. In America, bank robs you.

      by badger on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 10:37:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Can you do controlled burns around your house (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        badger, kyril, crose, foresterbob

        during the wet seasons? That would at least help lower the risk for your house.

        I spent a summer working on a Forest Service fire-crew team. When we weren't fighting fires, one of the tasks they'd have us do we called "stacking sticks": walking along trails on both sides and moving dead branches and sticks. Seems silly in the woods, but fire needs fuel. Occasionally on a fire we'd do a back-burn (e.g. up a ridge on which the fire was approaching from the other side).

        If you can do small controlled-burns around your property when it's wet, it'll help remove the most combustible stuff. As I'm sure you're aware (but city-slickers might not be), there's a vicious cycle in fire-prevention: the more that forest fires are prevented, the more combustible brush builds up and the eventual fire is much more intense and destructive than smaller ones would be, burning everything in its path. When fires are allowed to burn freely, they can remove underbrush while some of the bigger trees can still survive.

        Hard to see from the photo but it looks like pretty dense trees around your house (pine, or fir?). You (and your neighbors) might consider a tree-free perimeter around your property, if you haven't already. Too bad to lose the trees, but another small measure to help protect your house. Fires leap across the tops of trees even before the ground burns -- it's impressive to watch up close, makes a loud roaring sound.

        Thanks for posting, and good luck!!

        •  We burn patches before all the snow is out (6+ / 0-)

          (obviously not where there's still snow), with a propane torch and 5 gallon tank. But often in spring the switch from safe to burn an area over to dry enough to spread fast is a couple of days. So we don't burn areas after the snow is out. We still burn some piles until May, mostly in areas cleared for that, with a high pressure pump, fire hose and swimming pool ready to go in a minute or less if there's a problem. We've had wet springs lately though (our climate change), so things grow back quickly, esp since most stuff is fire adapted anyway, but it keeps the duff accumulation down.

          We cut a lot of brush and have spent years removing slash piles left from logging before we bought the property. We were lucky enough to have DNR fire crews use our area for project work and physical training a few years ago, so they helped thin our woods and get a head start on brush removal. We had snowbrush (ceanothus) over 6 feet tall and dense on the hill behind the house - there's still a lot there, but it's been pushed back a hundred feet or more.

          We're a ponderosa pine ecosystem - our property is pond pine and Douglas fir with some lodgepole taking hold since the 1994 fire (maybe a dozen trees or so). Across the valley from us the entire hillside was burned out unnecessarily in 1994, and since it faces north, it's come back in almost all lodgepole so dense you can't walk through it. Most of us up here are in pretty good shape - clear of small trees and ladder fuels for a hundred feet around structures, and the few trees inside that radius are limbed up 10 feet or more. About half of our neighbors went through the 1994 fire, and the guy 2 houses away is an ex-USFS rappeller, fireman and former fire commissioner; another neighbor's son is an ex-HotShot.

          The brush got away from us this year a little - mostly because we were clearing out old windthrow behind the neighbor's house. Her husband died and she needs a lot of firewood, and they hadn't gotten back there. I took out 6 cords, and there's close to that still on the hillside, so that's pretty good fuel load reduction. We'll get things back into control this fall/next spring, but I'd feel pretty confident about the house surviving a fire burning through, and I'd give a lot of our woods a better than even chance of surviving.

          I think my biggest worry is that this late in the year with no rain for a few months there are a lot of dead needles higher up in the trees. But the high winds yesterday and today may help clean a lot of that out.

          If you've looked at our area on Google maps, we're about 2 miles up 1st Creek Rd. with a green roof and a blue oval swimming pool. The current photos were taken when shadows were long, so it probably looks denser than it really is.

          And I can't pass up the opportunity to thank you for your service and hard work - fire fighters are heroes around here and they earn that status most years.

          In Soviet Russia, you rob bank. In America, bank robs you.

          by badger on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 11:13:31 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Fire here too (16+ / 0-)

    I live in Jackson, Wyoming. We had a fire start right across the road from our sub-division yesterday afternoon.  A neighbor in Little Horsetheif Canyon started it when he hit a rock with his lawn mower. They got a helicopter dumping water on it right away but it went so fast it was very scary to watch. We have been incredibly fortunate because what wind we have had is pushing the fire East, away from us and uphill. They brought in more helicopters today including 2 of the big tanker ones with the long fill hoses hanging under them (I call them “bugs”) It sounded like a war zone here all day. Luckily the Snake River is right here so they are able to cycle around quickly. There were 2 or 3 fixed wing tanker planes too dropping the red slurry stuff. I think they are working hard on it because there are so many homes very close. Last year our homeowner’s Associations’ “water czar” made the decision to no longer water the birm directly between our sub-division and the road or the big field/common area, It is crispy dry out there and directly across from where the fire started. If there had even been a breeze blowing this way there is little doubt our homes would probably have burned. As I look up in the hills across from our house tonight, there are still so many little spot fires actively burning all over the hills overlooking our neighborhood. I am saying prayers for all of us so close to these fires.

  •  My mother is from Manson. (8+ / 0-)

    I have spent many summers there and have seen lots of fires around Lake Chelan. This is really late for them to be starting. We are going to be visiting in October- I hope that they are finished by then.

    Good luck.

  •  Sounds bad. I'm frankly surprised at the lack of (6+ / 0-)

    rain. I'd always pictured your neck of the woods as being very wet. Here where the plains meet the mtns we've had good monsoonal rains up high. Vegetation looking good even of the streams and creeks are bone dry.

    How big is your personal carbon footprint?

    by ban nock on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 05:03:17 AM PDT

    •  Rainfall patterns are odd here (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wu ming

      Seattle is, of course, famously wet, but is experiencing record dryness right now (last I heard), and I've been there when lawns were turning brown.

      We're in the rain shadow of the Cascades - most of the moisture usually drops on the west slope before crossing the divide. We're on the east slope of the Cascades, about 180 miles east of Seattle. We grow apples, cherries and now wine grapes, but mostly with irrigation either from the Columbia River or mountain streams - the orchards over the ridge from us, for example, have water rights to the creek that borders our property.

      However, Stehekin, 35 miles north of us, gets more avg annual precip than Seattle - just mostly in the form of snow. We live on the east side of the aptly named Stormy Mtn at 2100 ft., and we get more precip than the valley below us at around 1100 ft. Western red cedar, which likes water, grows at higher elevations here.

      In Soviet Russia, you rob bank. In America, bank robs you.

      by badger on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 07:19:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Coastal California has two seasons: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    badger, wu ming, foresterbob

    rainy season and fire season. Rainy ends in late spring, typically by the start of May. Fire continues till at least November, possibly early December, when the rains start. On hot days, when the usual westerly winds off the ocean are reversed - air over the very hot land rises and pushes back - the air reaching the coastal hills from the east has lost any water it might have been hoarding. This is called "fire weather" in the SF Bay Area. Official "summer" months are often cool; fire weather is most common in Sept and Oct (but so far this year it's still pretty cold). On the day the Oakland Fire started in 1991, it was 20 October and 95 degrees.

    As far as fire danger is concerned, we are lucky: We do not live in the urban/wildland interface, but in the west part of the urban east bay, and the wildfires would really have to work at it to get here through all the city streets.

    I am glad those firefighters are on their way to your "smoker." Keeping it small is the name of the game. Good luck ...

    We all understand that freedom isn't free. What Romney and Ryan don't understand is that neither is opportunity. We have to invest in it.
    Julian Castro, DNC 4 Sept 2012

    by pixxer on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 07:43:39 AM PDT

    •  You can't win (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wu ming, pixxer, foresterbob

      A wet season keeps fires down, but it makes the fuel grow so that the next fire season has that much more to burn.

      Usually the fires in the interior west are under control by now, so more resources can be thrown at CA's later fire season, but as several posters above indicate, there are still fires popping up in WY and ongoing in ID and MT.

      People don't realize that the amount of fire activity can have an impact on fire size. Maybe 7 or so years ago there were so many fires within 50 miles of us that new fires got no attention - even though they were threatening structures, which are the top priority. They had to triage the fires to decide where to commit resources. Fortunately, the areas without coverage were right on the lake and able to obtain pumps and hoses.

      In Soviet Russia, you rob bank. In America, bank robs you.

      by badger on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 07:59:44 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Has the wind has dropped today with (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    badger, foresterbob

    the passing of that system? Over here on the west side it was really windy overnight, lessened this morning, now light breeze. Did you get any of that brief precip?

    Thanks for the detailed report. The local media are pretty vague on the status of fires in the mountains, esp. away from towns. Stay safe, all of you.

    •  It looks like the wind has died down (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      OceanDiver, foresterbob

      It's hard to tell here - quite often the tree tops will be swaying but it's almost dead calm on the ground. But there have been helicopter water drops going over for the last 2 hours, and if it's too windy they usually stay on the ground.

      No rain here and hardly a cloud since last night. Wind 15-20MPH and gusting is still in the forecast until tonight, becoming calm tomorrow morning. Temperatures, fortunately are in the mid-60s today and tomorrow and 70F on Wed before going back up to the upper 70s/low 80s later in the week.

      We seem to be getting more aggressive attack on our fire. There's another fire about 10 miles SE right on the Columbia River, which is mostly in sagebrush, and US97A is closed there. There's another fire about 500 acres in size near Wenatchee and they've evacuated people near that one - about 180 homes, I heard.

      We've also got a Type 1 incident team (the top level) which I think is co-ordinating the entire complex. I'm surprised at that, given the other fires still burning in the west and with CA's fire season heating up. That gets us priority on resources and manpower.

      Ironically, we sometimes get the best info about local fires from KING5's website - the local media (medium, singular, actually - one radio station) is sometimes good, sometimes bad. When we were listening this morning, we got an extended discussion of some guy peddling his carpet cleaning business. Police/fire scanners are online and we get some info from that - they just "toned" another brush fire on US2, somewhere between Wenatchee and Leavenworth.

      That last makes me nervous - we have a local arsonist who sometimes "piggybacks" on large local fires, usually without major effect though.

      In Soviet Russia, you rob bank. In America, bank robs you.

      by badger on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 12:38:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yikes! Local arsonist...crazy stupid...usually (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        badger, foresterbob

        people who live in fire country know better, how quickly how bad it can get. Sorry to hear that.

        Great to hear the helicopters are flying during this stretch, and you have max priority. For now anyway....knock these back. The wind has picked up over here this afternoon, straight out of the west, what you'll have through the night I guess. Good thing it will drop tomorrow since it looks dry dry dry for the duration. Best of luck, badger.

      •  Found a good website (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Information about local fires...acres, fuel, status, etc

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