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Burning Olympic Rainforest Poses Firefighting Challenge

July 20, 2015

It’s 6 a.m. and a special team of fire response coordinators is gathered at Port Angeles High School.

This incident command center is more than 100 miles from the wildfire they’re dealing with: the Paradise Fire. It's burning in the Queets River Valley, near the western edge of Olympic National Park.

The immediate vicinity of the fire is no place for a command center. There are only two ways to access the burn area: by helicopter or by fording a river and hiking more than 15 miles of trail.

“Helibase, can you raise your hand and tell me if you can hear?” Kris Eriksen, a public information officer for the Forest Service, leans in close to a computer screen.  Firefighting crews in remote stations near the wildfire are connecting via  satellite video conference. It’s not so different than a morning video hangout for remote Google employees.
The Paradise Fire has now burned 1,600 acres of old-growth rainforest. That makes it a small wildfire when compared to the likes of the Carlton Complex Fire, which burned 200,000 acres last summer in Central Washington. But in the normally damp forests of the Olympic National Park, it’s the largest fire in history.

The Paradise Fire is more than historic; its situation in a luxuriant rainforest presents a new set of challenges for fire crews and questions for scientists.

'Low And Slow'

“It’s something unique even for those of us who have been doing it for a long time,” says Eriksen, who’s been fighting fire for more than 30 years. “When I heard we were coming [to fight the Paradise Fire] I said, ‘how are we gonna do fire in a rainforest? How is it burning?’”
The answer: “Low and slow,” she explains. “It’s sort of ‘skunking around,’ as we call it.”
This is not the blazing-canopy wildfire that draws network news crews out West. Picture instead, a damp, smoldering campfire. The treetops in this forest rarely catch fire. Instead it’s the moss and lichen (commonly referred to as “old man’s beard” or “witch’s hair” by locals), now crisp and dry after the hottest spring and early summer on record.

The moss and lichen provide tinder for the wildfire, which has been burning up the trunks of these 500-year-old trees.

Watch: Raw footage shot at the Paradise Fire burning in Olympic National Park:

Credit: National Park Service Paradise Fire Response Team

“It’s a real heavy moss. Gets up into the limbs,” Lee Freeman, who’s been fighting wildland fires for almost 40 years, tells his colleagues during the video chat. “So once you get a spark it’ll go up the tree and as it gets up in that thicker stuff it just falls out, burning, and falls down on the forest floor and lights up the moss on the forest floor.”
In a typical wildfire response, crews dump water, bulldoze, cut down trees and dig down to the dirt around the fire’s perimeter to prevent it from progressing.
But that strategy doesn’t really work here. First of all, it’s a section of the park without roads. Now, picture trying to dump water from a helicopter onto a rainforest canopy that is so dense that very little of the water will make it down to the fire burning in the underbrush below.
Digging fire line, Eriksen says, is next to impossible.
“These trees are 8 feet across and the layer you would normally dig through to get to mineral soil? It’s 3 feet deep. So there’s no way to dig line around this fire.”

The response team is using natural land formations to channel the fire. The Queets River runs along the southern edge of the fire. Each day, crews patrol the river banks to make sure flaming pieces of moss and lichen don’t drift across, spreading the fire into hundreds more acres of the national park and eventually to state and private property. Other crews are trying to dampen strategic sections of forest and hope for winds from the south and west that will blow the fire up a nearby ridge to rock faces, where there’s no more fuel to burn.
But nothing puts out a wildfire in a rainforest like a return to normal, rainy weather. This fire could burn until the rains return this fall.

 Fire Forensics In The Rainforest

Unlike most hikers who might wander through the moss-draped Douglas firs and western hemlocks of the park’s Sol Duc River Valley, Mark Huff is on the lookout for blackened stumps that may be hundreds of years old. Huff has been studying rainforest wildfires in the Olympics since the late 1970s. He manages a regional monitoring program  the National Park Service.

This section of forest last burned in 1870 and the fire may have been more than five times the size of the current Paradise Fire.

“These are the monuments of the previous forest, what we’re looking at here,” Huff says, gazing up the massive trunk of a blackened fir tree that may have been 500 years old when the fire swept through here 145 years ago.

“It’s almost like ancient ruins that are at their last stage of crumbling and in another hundred years will be completely disappearing,” he says.

Listen: Ashley Ahearn  on the history of wildfire in the Olympic Rainforest with KUOW Host Ross Reynolds and on a hike with fire ecologist Mark Huff as he rediscovers a research site he hasn’t visited in 35 years.

Historically these rainforests might burn every 500 to 800 years. That makes it challenging to find old burn areas or draw conclusions about trends or changes in the frequency of fires here.

Even so,  Huff says the Paradise Fire has caught his interest, being the third fire in this rainforest since 1961.

“The fact that we have three modest-size fires in the last 40 years certainly isn’t proof that we have a wholescale change going on here locally,” Huff says. “But it puts our antenna up to say, ‘hmm, there’s something going on. We should watch it and if we continue on that trend, substantial change is very likely.’” 

“The way fires behave in this ecosystem is unique compared to any other ecosystem in perhaps the world.” -- Ecologist Mark Huff

A short distance from the giant, burned-out stump, in a wetter, fern-lined part of the forest, Huff excitedly points out a giant, blackened Douglas fir that survived the 1870 fire. He hikes on and finds several more massive old trees, their trunks deeply wrinkled and blackened with fire scars.

These “survivors” as Huff calls them, may be close to 700 years old. Their cones provided the seeds for the “teenage” trees that have sprouted up around them in the last 150 years since the fire.

This pocket of survivors illustrate a key characteristic of rainforest wildfires, Huff says. Unlike other western fires that can scorch everything in their paths, rainforest fires often burn in the understory of the forest in a patchwork pattern, leaving wetter parts of the forest untouched so big, old trees like this one can survive.
How Fire Helps The Rainforest Ecosystem

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: ideal for the 3,000 or so resident elk to forage.

“This patchy burn could be a boon,” says Patti Happe, a wildlife biologist at Olympic National Park. “It could create a mosaic of habitat and increase forageability but still provide shelter for other species.”

Happe says there are a lot of elk that spend time in the Paradise Fire burn area, though she has received reports that they seem to have moved across the Queets River to safety.
Olympic National Park is roughly a million acres, so if 1,600 acres burns it’s not the end of the world, Happe says. But as the global climate changes, she and Huff worry that these fires are becoming more frequent.  

“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,” Happe says. “Is it a new normal and this is what we’re going to have happen? If so, then we may not have these forests.”

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Smoke from Olympic National Park’s Paradise Fire, as seen on July 18, 2015.

Olympic National Park