Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Notes on Upper Skagit Complex Fire

Yet another fire area from the 2015 wildfire season. The Upper Skagit Complex took place in forest. It burned up the Skagit River gorge along both sides of the highway. Hence, a drive over the North Cascades Highway will take you through the path of a forest fire. (Note Highway 20 over Sherman Pass east of Republic passes through a forest fire burn from a 1990s fire through a larch forest).   

My windshield was not particularly clean

The fire path and the view shown above is a good lesson in understanding how fire passes through a forest. The intensity of the fire varies a great deal. Many trees do not burn at all. Wet areas will survive the flames as will areas when the fire burns through an area at night.

This section of the fire burned into the rock large landslide that close the highway a few years back. The newish young red alders just above the highway were untouched, but upslope the fire must have been hot with had burning of the forest despite the rocky ground.
Most of this slope burned with some sections very intensely burned. But even then stands of green remain.
These trees appear to have survived, but despite the lack of understory on the talus slope their trunks were singed.
This area adjacent to the road burned, but the burn was along the ground. My understanding of this fire via reports from on the ground was that a fair bit of slow burning took place within the ground mass of the forest. Roots of the trees burned slowly for days and then the trees fell over, rolling down the slope. Indeed I noted lots of logs that appeared to be recent tree falls along the road as well as marks on the pavement indicating log falls on the highway.

The town of Newhalem with Newhalen Creek valley behind.

Newhalem is a company town owned by Seattle City Light as part of the Skagit River hydroelectric system owned and operated by Seattle. The fire burned around the town in part due to fire response efforts.

The late August storm event put this fire out. A remarkable storm. Most typical years this fire would have continued burning all the way until steady falls rains arrived.

The fire extent was not remarkable in area for this section of the North Cascades although the more fire prone areas are a typically a bit further east. Additional fires burned in more out of the way places further up the Skagit Valley this year with one fire reburning an area burned just a few years ago.

A good take away from this fire for those passing through is that acreage or square mile burned reports do not account for the fact that these burn areas are only partially burned. What will remain is a mixed age stand of trees with standing dead timber. By some measures a healthy ecosystem.


David Camp said...

Dan I went up-valley to check out the fire above NewHalem and volunteer. I was told the following by a local:
- the fire was started by a lightning strike above Diablo Lake at least 3 weeks before it reached the slopes above Newhalem;
-that the Fed "multi-agency" response team built a firebreak at the foot of the slope to stop the fire when it got there;
-they then decided to set a "back-fire" from the firebreak to burn upslope and meet the original fire which was moving downslope;
-as it does in the Skagit, the up-valley wind picked up in the afternoon and they lost control of the backfire. It burned around the bend by the powerhouse and took off up the gorge, which acted as a chimney;
-at some point the fire leaped the gorge and started burning the other side of the river, towards Newhalem, and prompting an immediate evacuation plan.

I visited the office the "multi-agency" fed fire response team had set up in Marblemount - looking for a volunteer coordinator. Instead I was directed to the "information officer" who told me they would "order up" local firefighters and volunteers if they needed them. Pretty cold shoulder, AFAIC, from a group based in Utah and so ignorant of local conditions they set a back-fire without understanding the local wind patterns and as a result put the town of Newhalem in much greater danger than if they had done nothing at all. It sure put the Katrina fubar into perspective for me.

Dan McShane said...

David: My post did not go into how the fire response was done and I really do not have any details on the fire response to this fire or any of the others I observed. What I do know of the efforts around Newhalem are not fully consistent with the comment, but not completely inconsistent either. This was a very dangerous and hard fire to fight and hard decisions had to be made or not made.

David Camp said...

Ya Dan I agree they made a decision in difficult circumstances too bad it was a bad one. I was making a larger point - vast sums of money spent to man a huge office that took up the whole Marblemount community center and a condescending attitude to people who actually live locally and it's no surprise they made decisions without consulting people with local knowledge.

One big caveat - it's gossip, single-sourced. I admit it plays into my concerns about fraud and waste and arrogance in the federal edifice.