Fire In Olympic Rainforest Presents Response Challenge, Disturbing Trend

Jul 22, 2015

More than 1600 acres of old growth rainforest have burned in Washington’s Olympic National Park.
Firefighters are mounting a difficult response in a remote river valley. This is the largest fire in the park’s history, but it’s not the first to burn in the rainforests of the Olympics.

The Paradise Fire is burning in such a remote valley that so far the only way to deliver supplies and firefighters has been by helicopter or mule train.

The response team here at headquarters is communicating with crews on the ground via satellite.

This fire is unlike anything the response team has seen before. Kris Eriksen has been handling fires for the Forest Service for more than 30 years.

Kris Eriksen: When I heard we were coming I said, how are we gonna do a fire in a rainforest? How is it burning? But it is so dry.

Normally, these forests are wet – full of ferns and massive trees – maybe 500 years or older – and lined with moss and lichen, like they’re wearing sweaters.

Now the moss is crispy and dry like kindling.

Lee Freeman pipes in from the fire line to describe what he’s seeing.

Lee Freeman: Once you get a spark it’ll go up the tree and as it gets up in that thicker stuff up around the limbs it just falls out, burning, and lights up the moss on the forest floor.

There have been fires in the Olympic Mountains before. But if you’re just hiking along, it’s really hard to tell that you’re in an area that burned – maybe centuries ago.

Mark Huff: Your average person being at a crime scene. They don’t see much, but a detective sees all the little pieces being put together and what avenues to go down to look for evidence.
 

So you’re a wildfire rainforest detective.
Mark Huff: Definitely.

Mark Huff looks at a stump in the Olympic Forest.
Credit Ashley Ahearn / Earthfix

Mark Huff has been studying wildfires in the Olympics for more than 30 years. We’re hiking along the Sol Duc River, in a section of forest that burned almost 150 years ago.

Mark Huff: There’s a big one down there...I think we’re going to have to get off the trail.

Huff takes off into the underbrush towards a massive, burned out trunk, maybe 40 feet tall and wide enough that together, the two of us couldn’t get our arms around the stump if we tried.

Mark Huff: That’s charcoal,
Yeah, this is all charcoal.

A sure sign that the 1870 fire came through here.

But Huff isn’t satisfied. He wants to find a survivor - a tree that may have been 400 or 500 years old at the time of the fire… and lived to provide the seeds for the next generation of trees that sprouted up after the burn.

Mark Huff: We found one!
Ahearn on tape:No way.
Mark Huff: It’s over here. A douglas fir that survived the fire. Oh, that’s a beauty. Wow!!

Rainforest fires burn in a patchwork pattern, leaving wetter parts of the forest untouched so big old trees like this one can survive.

And this patchwork burn pattern is an important part of the ecosystem. Burned areas allow sunlight to get through and enable new growth on the forest floor.

Perfect food for the 3,000 or so elk that live in these mountains. Patti Happe is a wildlife biologist at Olympic National Park who studies elk. She’s also an expert elk impersonator.

Patti Happe: It’s a throaty, HWUAH! Like that type of thing. It’s a bark though.

The elk bark to warn the herd when there’s an intruder - like Patti Happe when she comes to study them.

She says that since the Paradise Fire started, the elk seem to have moved across the Queets River to safety.

Olympic National Park is roughly a million acres, so if 1600 acres burns it’s not the end of the world, Happe says. But as the global climate changes, these fires are becoming more common.

Historically, the fire cycle here is every 500 years or longer. The Paradise Fire is the 3rd fire in the Olympic rainforest since 1960.

Patti Happe: It takes a long time to grow structure like that there, so it can’t all burn or you’re never going to get that structure back.

The Paradise Fire is expected to burn until the rains come to these mountains again in the fall.