Visit to Mordor
Andy Dappen

I was keenly anticipating our return to Duncan Ridge. My wife and I had backpacked here with our daughters long ago — before they had the nerve to grow up. Our return to this high ridge wandering through forests of lodgepole pine, stands of fir, and finally through glades of subalpine larch would be a stroll through an earlier time. Maybe it would feel like a return to the Shire.

Photo: Duncan Ridge forest of old

My misgivings started on the drive some twenty miles up the Entiat River. Suddenly the stark impacts of the Pyramid Fire (2012), Duncan Fire (2014), and Wolverine Fire (2015) dominated the landscape. Inholdings of ranches and homes along the river had been protected from the flames, but these green patches were surrounded by a vast, black tapestry peppered with the burnt trunks of uncountable trees. The six-mile, dirt road zigzagging upward to the ridge where the trail started was typical of all the slopes within our view scape; it was the crematorium of millions upon millions of trees. “Do you think we will be walking through Mordor the entire day?” my wife asked.

I exuded a positivism I didn’t feel, “Up high the trees will have thinned enough that the fire probably just ran through the grasses.”

Hours later we had our answer. Some of the highest slopes of the hike were open enough to keep fire at ground level and spare some groves. Still, the fire burning the lower slopes — which were overloaded with unburned fuels accumulated over a century — was hot enough that many high trees ignited like Roman Candles.

Photo: Duncan Ridge forest of old

On the return to the car I considered the implications of research conducted by Dr. Paul Hessburg and his colleagues at the Forestry Sciences Laboratory, a forestry research facility in Wenatchee, Washington. Hessburg, one of the foremost scientists researching the proliferation of large wildfires in the West, has created a presentation I have attended several times, that has aired in over 80 western communities. The presentation, called Era of Megafires, discusses some of the social and ecological causes of the problem, what’s at stake, and what can be done.

Photo: Duncan Ridge forest now

That presentation explains that throughout many of the different dry forest types found in the American West, frequent low- and medium-intensity fires along with high-severity fires in the moister and colder forests were the historical norm. These more frequent small and medium-sized fires reduced combustible fuels, created a patchwork of burnt and unburnt slopes, and regulated the likelihood of large fires that could burn massive tracts of forest. After European settlement aggressive fire suppression began in an attempt to protect homes, barns, fences, crops, livestock, timber and more.

Through much of the twentieth century, logging contributed to the problem by taking large, fire-resistant trees and leaving behind the smaller, fire-intolerant trees. These factors helped create the fuels overload problem impacting 10-12 million acres of forested lands in Washington and Oregon alone. Combined with grazing (which eliminated grasses, creating conditions favorable to the establishment of more small trees) and global warming (which has reduced snowpack in the mountains, increased winter and summer temperatures, brought on earlier springs, and extended the length of fire seasons 4 to 8 weeks), Western forests are now drier, more flammable and primed to burn big many summers when lightning or human carelessness brings flame to the landscape.

For thirty years now, hot, large, and atypically destructive fires have been torching the Western landscape at frightening rates. Over the past 15 years, for example, more than 100 million acres of forest and rangelands have burned — most of these in the large and often highly damaging megafires. And Dr. Hessburg says the trend is worsening, “If preventative actions aren’t taken, we expect to see a doubling or tripling of the annual area burned by mid-century.”

Right Photo: Most of the forest behind in this old summit photo is now a black board rather than a green landscape

The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, home to today’s hike along Duncan Ridge, is roughly 4 million acres in size and the majority of its unburned lands are overloaded with fuels that, if burned during the wrong weather conditions, could easily transform a small fire into a large one capable of burning 50,000 to 100,000 acres or more. The ridge we walk along as we return to the car is so badly burned it will be a century before it returns to the forest I remembered.

Badly torched forests are not, by definition, always a bad thing. In much smaller doses fire, even high-intensity fires, can be a very good thing. Burnt forests bring diversity to the landscape. Fireweed, mushrooms, and browse favored by herbivores have erupted on the open lands around me – this brings bees, insects, birds of all feathers, deer, and even top predators. But the scope of what has burned before me, and the severity of these huge fires is unprecedented to how these forests once functioned.

For those of us living and recreating in Central Washington our quality of life will be impacted by abnormally large wildfires during the decades ahead. Unless active steps are taken to address the problem, we should expect to see many of the outdoor places we prize transformed to charcoal. Whether it’s next week or next year, a stroke of lightning or human carelessness could turn Mission Creek, Devils Gulch, the Mission Ridge Ski Area, Nason Ridge, Colchuck Lake, Snow Creek, Twin Peaks, Icicle Ridge, Loup Loup Summit, Conconully, Tiffany Lake, or Bonaparte Lake into smoldering mirrors of Duncan Ridge.

My visit with the Ghost of Mordor Present scares me. Once home, I write a half-dozen emails to local decision makers outlining steps to be taken to stave off the Ghost of Mordor Future. The solutions require change, but when hundreds of citizens give the appropriate decision makers an earful of bellyaching, we create the political pressure and social license for that change.

This is currently an interesting hike (or mountain bike ride) to witness the affects of megafire up close and personal. Pay a visit and imagine other places you love getting torched on this kind of scale. It’s sobering. For trip details about accessing and doing this route, see this post.


What Each of Us Can Do

Write emails (or call) local, regional, and national decision makers (county commissioners, state legislators and senator, federal representative and senators, state commissioner of public lands, and superintendent of the local national forest). Urge them to be proactive rather than reactive to the wildfire crisis. Ask that the lion’s share of wildfire funding be earmarked for treatment of fuels-heavy forests rather than for the suppression of fires. Pressure them to man- and woman-up to protect the public lands entrusted to them. To accomplish this, stress some of the following:

Stop suppressing all fires – let many more wildfires burn when conditions will result in mixed severity wildfires. Let authorities know you understand there is some risk such fires could escape, but that the larger risk is having those same lands burn when conditions would result in uncontrollable, high-intensity fires.

Support an exponential increase in the amount of prescribed burning performed during the spring and fall to reduce megafires during the heat of summer. In Georgia, nearly one million acres of forest was treated in 2015 with prescribed burns. By comparison air-quality regulations, lack of funding, and lack of social license (that’s us!) keeps many Western states from using prescribed burns on even 10 percent of that amount. Let’s borrow from Georgia’s experiences.

Reform air-quality regulations. Scores of prescribed burns create far less harmful smoke than one large wildfire. Unsustainable air-quality regulations make it impossible for many land management agencies to treat the ground necessary to get on top of the fuels problem. These regulations, unintentionally, facilitate larger, more severe fires .

Develop policies supporting investments in the mechanical thinning (logging) of small-diameter trees that have made our forests denser and more prone to severe fire effects. Not all logging is bad and new technologies can facilitate environmentally sound thinning of small trees. Modernized businesses, if given the right incentives and monitored properly, are demonstrating they can net modest profits while leaving the forest healthier and more fire resilient.

This post was originally published on 10/8/2017.


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