I had breakfast at the Kalaloch Lodge restaurant, not far from the Queets, while the rain was still falling. "When will the sun come out?" an elderly woman at the next table asked the waitress as if lodging a complaint with management. "The whole weekend we've been here it's rained continuously."
"I'm so happy that finally we got three days of rain," the waitress responded politely. "This year we got 12 inches. Usually we get about 12 feet. It's been bad for trees and all the life in our area." In fact, the peninsula has received over 51 inches of rain, mostly last winter, but her point couldn't have been more on target. "It has been so dry that the salmon can't move in the river," she added. Her voice lit up a bit as she continued, "With this rain, the rivers will rise and the salmon will be able to go upriver to spawn. The salmon will return."
I asked where she was from. "Quinault Nation," she said, citing one of the local native tribes dependent both nutritionally and culturally on those salmon.
"The Queets, the largest river flowing off the west side of the Olympics, is running at less than a third its normal volume," the Seattle Times reported. "[B]ad news for the wild salmon runs, steelhead, bull trout, and cutthroat trout." In addition to the disappearing snowpack and severe drought, the iconic glaciers of the Olympic Mountains are melting rapidly, which will likely someday spell doom for the park's rivers and its vibrant ecology. According to Bill Baccus, a scientist at the park, over the last 30 years, those glaciers have shrunk by about 35%, a direct consequence of the impact of climate change.
After breakfast, I took off for the Hoh Valley. At its visitor center, a ranger described the battle underway with the Paradise Fire. Summing up how dire the situation was, he said, "Our goal is confinement, not containment." Normally, success in fighting a wildfire is measured by what percentage of it has been contained, but not with the Paradise. "Safety of the firefighters and safety of the human communities are our two priorities right now," the ranger explained. As a result, the National Park Service is letting the fire burn further into wilderness areas unfought, while trying to stop its spread toward human communities and into commercially valuable timberlands outside the park.
For firefighters, combating such a blaze in an old-growth rainforest with steep hills is, at best, an impossibly dangerous business. Large trees are "falling down regularly," firefighter Dave Felsen told the Seattle Times. "You can hear cracking and you try to move, but it's so thick in there that there is no escape route if something is coming at you."
Besides, many of the traditional means of fighting wildfires don't work against the Paradise. Dumping water from a helicopter, to take one example, is almost meaningless. As an NPR reporter noted, the rainforest canopy "is so dense that very little of the water will make it down to the fire burning in the underbrush below." Worse yet, as the Washington Post reported, the large trees and thick growth "make it impossible to effectively cut a fire line" through the foliage to contain the spread of the flames.
With the moist lichens and mosses that usually give the rainforest its magical appearance shriveled and dried out, they now help spread the fire from tree to tree. When they burst into flames and fall to the ground, yet more of the dry underbrush catches, too. In other words, that forest, which normally would have suppressed a fire, has now been transformed into a tinderbox.
"Few people in our profession have ever seen this kind of fire in this kind of ecosystem," Bill Hahnenberg, the Paradise Fire incident commander, told his crew. "The information you gather could be really valuable." He didn't have to add the obvious: its value lies in offering hints as to how to fight such fires in a future that, as the region becomes drier and hotter, will be ever more amenable to them.
So far, the fire is smoldering, but as the summer heats up, the Seattle Times reports, "there is still the potential for a crown fire that can spread in dramatic fashion as treetops are engulfed in flames." According to several park employees I spoke with, the Paradise Fire is likely to burn until the autumn rains return to the western valleys. As of July 23rd, it had eaten 1,781 acres, which sounds modest compared to other fires burning in the West, but you have to remind yourself that it's not modest at all, not in a temperate rainforest. It also poses a challenge to the very American idea of land conservation.
Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American environmentalists passionately fought to protect large swaths of public lands and waters. The national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and wildernesses they helped to create laid the basis for a new American identity. Nationalism aside, such publicly protected lands and waters also offered refuge for an incredible diversity of species, some of which would have otherwise found it difficult to survive at the edges of an expanding industrialized, consumerist society. Today, that diversity of life within these public lands and waters is increasingly endangered by climate change.
What, then, should environmental conservation look like in a twenty-first century in which the Paradise Fire could become something like the norm?
Tankers and Rigs
"This is not an anthropogenic fire," the ranger I spoke with at the Hoh visitor center insisted. In the most literal sense, that's true. In late May, lightning struck a tree in the Queets Valley and started the fire, which then smoldered and slowly spread across the north bank of the river. It was finally detected in mid-June and firefighters were called in. That such a lightning strike disqualifies the Paradise Fire from being "anthropogenic" -- human-caused -- would once have been a given, but in a world being heated by the burning of fossil fuels, such definitions have to be reconsidered.
The very rarity of such fires speaks to the anthropogenic nature of the origins of this one. After all, a temperate rainforest as a vast collection of biomass and so a carbon sink is only possible thanks to the rarity of fire in such a habitat. According to the World Wildlife Fund, "With a unique combination of moderate temperatures and very high rainfall, the climate makes fires extremely rare" in such forests.
The natural fire cycle in these forests is about 500 to 800 years. In other words, once every half-millennium or more this forest may experience a moderate-sized fire. But that's now changing. Mark Huff, who has been studying wildfires in the park since the late 1970s, told Seattle's public radio station KUOW that in the past half-century there have already been "three modest-sized fires" here, including the Paradise, though the other two were less destructive. According to a National Park Service map ("Olympic National Park: Fire History 1896-2006") in the western rainforest, during that century-plus, two lightning-caused fires burned more than 100 acres and another more than 500 acres.