Western Wildfires: What, Where, Why and What Else

By Deborah Williams August 21, 2015

As the Washington wildfires rage on, we’ve rounded up some incredible images and articles that help explain the magnitude of the current situation there and across the country, how we’ve gotten to this point, and what can be done to prevent such devastation from becoming a recurring theme each summer across the drought-ridden West.

Wildfiretoday.com's national drought monitor map shows extreme and exceptional drought throughout the Western U.S.

Wildfiretoday.com’s national drought monitor map shows extreme and exceptional drought throughout the Western U.S.


According to the Washington Post, “wildfires are exploding across the western United States, overstretching resources and, in some states, resulting in tragic consequences. Some 30,000 firefighters and additional support staff are now fighting fires across the United States—the biggest number mobilized in 15 years, according to the U.S. Forest Service. And it’s still not enough.”

The Cable Crossing Fire in southern Oregon was discovered July 28, 2015, and air attack started immediately.   (Photos: Jeffrey McEnroe, BLM, flickr)

The Cable Crossing Fire in southern Oregon was discovered July 28, 2015, and air attack started immediately.
(Photos: Jeffrey McEnroe, BLM, flickr)

As Teton Gravity Research reports and shows with its interactive wildfire map, “there are currently 105 large active fires burning in the United States this week and, no surprise, a large percentage of them are concentrated along the West Coast, where years of drought have been steadily whittling away local forests’ ability to stave off big burns.”

Making matters worse, the U.S. Forest Service recently released a report examining the rising—and increasingly unaffordable—cost of fighting fires. More than 50 percent of the agency’s annual spending will go toward fire fighting efforts this year, and that percentage is expected to rise significantly over the next several years, which means money will continue being diverted away from other Forest Service work, such as infrastructure development and maintenance.

Budget data obtained by Green Wire over the past 12 years shows that the USFS has also borrowed $382 million from an account to maintain recreation sites, roads and research facilities; $300 million from accounts to acquire new lands for wildlife and recreation; and more than $130 million from a program that provides technical and financial aid to private forest owners.

In response, a bipartisan group in Congress has introduced a Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA), S. 1875 and H.R. 3992. The WDFA “would develop a wildfire emergency funding process for the USFS and DOI that would be similar to those used for other natural disaster emergencies. Currently, no other entities within the federal system are forced to fund disaster response within their discretionary budgets other than our land management agencies.

“Under WDFA, USFS and DOI wildfire suppression would be funded through a budget cap adjustment similar to that currently used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for other natural disasters under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. The regular appropriations process would continue to fund 70 percent of the ten-year average for suppression.”

At OIA’s 2015 Capitol Summit, wildfire funding was among the issues our members asked their Congressional representatives to support.

Words From the West

We reached out to a few of our member companies to find out how the fires are affecting them and their businesses. For Christian Folk of Outdoor Research, the fires are turning away outdoorists who bring their passion and their dollars to this area, so the economy and the environment are both being negatively impacted.

“The Methow Valley is one of the more beautiful and accessible areas for outdoor recreation in the state,” said Folk. “From premier mountain biking, hiking and backpacking, to snowshoeing and cross country skiing in the winter—it’s a recreational paradise. The fires over the past two years have consumed over 900,000 acres and that number continues to rise as many of the fires burn out of control. Beyond the obvious damage directly caused by the fires, the smoke has filled surrounding valleys—and depending on winds—has spread to many parts of western Washington.

“This growing trend of drier and warmer winters is definitely a concerning trend—both from an economical and environmental perspective. Washington’s smaller eastside communities are often great jumping-off points for recreation, and without the tourist dollars coming into the community, times will be even more difficult—exacerbating the long term effects of the fires on these communities. Over time these areas will recover, but in the short term, this could have a serious economical impact on these communities.”

Sue Morrison of Cocoon in Wenatchee, Washington, noted that the fires aren’t just a professional or economic burden, they’re a very personal one. “Last month, I sat in my front yard and watched the Sleepy Hollow fire on a ridge a 1/2 mile away, as it burnt down 28 homes and three businesses. Our county had barely taken a breath when the Chelan Complex fire started—and parts of it are still not contained and growing,” she said, noting that many of her close friends are in danger of losing their homes. Some of those people are still recovering from last year’s fires.

“The impact of the WashingtonState fires will be felt for many years to come by the region’s outdoor and recreation businesses as well as by a host of other community businesses,” Morrison added. “North Central Washington is a mecca for outdoor recreation. The local economy is hugely dependent on recreation tourism and the active outdoor lifestyle of the locals. While the fires have consumed almost a half a million acres, there are millions of acres of pristine wilderness that have not been impacted by the fires. It is my hope that people come enjoy the remaining unspoiled wilderness instead of making the economic impact of the fires worse by staying away.”

Ben Drury, an eastern region sales manager for Cascade Design recently made a trip to Vancouver, where he enjoyed a brief respite of fresh, clear air. However, the drive back to Washington proved to be a little different. “Once across the border the haze thickened the further south we got along the I5 corridor, and pretty soon the smell of smoke was permeating the car, and the talk on the radio turned to story after story of communities and individuals effected by the fires,” he says. On the internet, Drury notes, the area weather guru explained how the smoke from the northeastern part of the state was making its way into the Puget Sound 

“Back in the office, the talk around the water cooler is all about the fires, closed mountain bike trails, canceled plans, and requests for suggestions on places to go on the coast,” reports Drury. Not only are visitors staying away, locals are leaving the area to pursue recreation elsewhere. “Those that did go backpacking in the Goat Rock talked about red, daylong sunset skies,  and cars covered with ash on arrival back at the trailhead,” says Drury.

For more on OIA’s policy agenda related to wildfire management, click here.