In this hot, dry summer, even the Queets rain forest in Olympic National Park is burning. It’s a rare spectacle, but one that could become more common.

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PARADISE CREEK, Olympic National Park — Fire crews call them “cat faces,” deep holes that flames have burned into the trunks of the centuries-old Sitka spruce and hemlock growing here in the Queets River valley.

The trees may smolder for days — spouting smoke from their bases before finally toppling to the ground with a thunderous crash that sounds like a bomb has gone off.

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“They are falling down regularly,” said Dave Felsen, a firefighter from Klamath Falls, Ore. “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.”

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This year, even the Queets rain forest, a place that typically receives more than 200 inches of rain annually, is burning.

The fire started after a warm winter prevented most of the snowpack from forming, followed by an exceedingly hot, dry spring that primed the forest for ignition. The result of this unusual alignment is what now ranks as the largest fire since the park was established, and might burn through the summer.

Mostly, it creeps through a forest floor thick with needle cast and downed logs, then, whenever the humidity drops low enough, flares to take afternoon runs up steep, forested slopes.

The fire is a reminder that even these ancient forests in one of the wettest places in North America have a burn cycle, although it’s measured in hundreds of years.

After a meager snowpack and a hot, dry spring, wildfires are burning in the Queets River valley rain forest for the first time in park hisotry. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)

It also may be a harbinger of things to come as temperatures warm in an atmosphere increasingly influenced by greenhouse gases.

East of the mountains, where the drought threatens agriculture, some researchers have concluded that climate change is already creating a longer fire season that’s forecast to intensify in the decades ahead.

On the western side of the Cascades, there is more uncertainty about how climate change will affect fire cycles. Major fires have flared in the past on the Olympic Peninsula and elsewhere. These burns are more infrequent, however, so there is less information to base future forecasts upon.

But if the snowpack in this region shrinks due to warmer winters, fires are expected to be more frequent.

“If we get the kind of temperatures that are projected, we will see more fires on the west side, and we will have longer fire seasons. I think that it’s inevitable,” said David Peterson, a biologist at the Forest Service’s Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle.

The Olympic Peninsula was hard hit by this year’s snowpack drought. By May 1, the snow was gone from survey sites, a far earlier melt than previous years. (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times)
The Olympic Peninsula was hard hit by this year’s snowpack drought. By May 1, the snow was gone from survey sites, a far earlier melt than previous years. Source: National Resources Conservation Service (Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times)

The changes that can take place when the climate shifts — even for just one year — are starkly apparent on the Olympic Peninsula, which has seen record low stream flows for June and early July.

The Queets, the largest river flowing off the west side of the Olympics, is running at less than a third its normal volume. Hikers who typically face a waist-deep ford to start the upriver trail now cross the ankle-deep Queets in water as warm as a swimming pool.

Farther up the Queets valley, the trail crosses creek after creek that this time of year should be flushing cool snowmelt into the river. Instead, many are dry beds of cobbled rocks.

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All of this is bad news for the wild salmon runs, steelhead, bull trout and cutthroat trout that make the Queets one of the most fabled fishing rivers in the state. As the fish seeking cooler water stack up in deeper holes, this makes them too easy to catch.

“We’re actively considering closures of the rivers to fishing because of the extreme low flow conditions,” said Sam Brenkman, an Olympic National Park fishery biologist.

As temperatures push into the high 80s, a few misguided banana slugs venture out onto the baked turf of the valley trail, while herds of elk seek what relief can be found by wallowing in the river.

Learning from fire

In the high country, park scientists say that the lower reaches of the glaciers are bare and melting even as the higher reaches remain blanketed in snow.

“We are going to see a massive loss of glacier ice this year at the lower elevations,” said Bill Baccus, a park scientist.

Baccus said the Olympic Park glaciers, the initial source of the Queets and many other rivers, have shrunk in area by about 35 percent in the last 30 years. In the decades ahead, they are expected to survive in truncated forms in the higher reaches of the mountains.

For those who fight wildfires, this large rain-forest burn is a rare spectacle, and an intriguing laboratory for what they might be facing more often in the future.

“Few people in our profession have ever seen this kind of fire in this kind of ecosystem,” said Bill Hahnenberg, the incident commander, in a morning briefing to crews. “The information you gather could be really valuable.”

The Paradise Fire is burning on the west side of Olympics, where the tremendous amounts of rainfall support many of the park’s biggest, oldest trees. Some hemlock and Sitka spruce can measure 30 to more than 50 feet in circumference. The Douglas fir, while less abundant, can live for more than 1,000 years and reach heights of more than 200 feet.

The fire was first spotted in the Queets drainage back on June 15. It was believed to have been started a full month earlier by lightning. By the time firefighters responded, it had spread through 200 acres.

Sources: ESRI, USGS, Google Earth, inciweb.nwcg.gov
Sources: ESRI, USGS, Google Earth, inciweb.nwcg.gov

It has now exceeded 1,200 acres as it burns east deeper into the valley and up the slopes.

Fire can help renew the forests, creating new spaces where light can penetrate and nurture the understory. And the goal in the Queets is to contain the fire, not put it out.

So far, much of the Paradise fire has been spread by lichens that mantle the trees. Their abundance reflects the spectacular amounts of moisture in this forest.

This year, the lichen are dry like kindling. They pass the fire from treetop to treetop, and downed wood help spread along the forest floor.

As the summer progresses, there is still the potential for a crown fire that can spread in dramatic fashion as treetops are engulfed in flames.

For firefighters, the big concerns are that winds could shift, enabling the fire to jump the Queets River, then head south through more old growth or spread west into valuable timber lands outside the park.

Old ways don’t work

Fire crews say the blaze is difficult to fight with traditional tactics, such as clearing out an area down to bare earth to try to prevent a fire’s spread.

“Once you get up on a slope, there is so much stuff on the ground and so many big trees that a fire line is neither practical or safe,” Felsen said.

Felsen is part of a Northern California-based crew that specializes in wilderness fires where the objectives may be to let the fire burn within certain areas. During a June tour in the Queets, they worked long days deep in the backcountry, then returned to a base camp that was kept stocked via helicopter so cooks could produce meals such as bratwurst and fresh salad.

They spent much of their time monitoring the fire from a safe distance, gathering observations that were relayed back to a command post based in Port Angeles.

They found a stupendous amount of wood to feed the fire on each acre of land.

But on many days, the fire acted like a kind of slumbering bear, slowly burning in a patchwork that leaves behind plenty of green spaces within the old forest. The charred remains of one giant old tree, for example, sat just a few yards away from a green bush full of ripe salmonberries.

Even with mild fire, the Sitka spruce trees of the rain forest may be vulnerable. Their thin bark offers less protection than that of more fire-adapted species such as Douglas fir.

Moreover, they have relatively shallow root systems that may get singed by fire, leading to the trees’ death.

If fire does become more frequent in the rain forests, researchers say, the mix of trees could change. The number of younger trees, as well as more fire-tolerant species such as Douglas fir, could increase.

“Once a tree is mature, it can tolerate some climate swings,” said Evers, the BLM fire ecologist. “But the problem comes when you lose those trees due to fire. The climate may have shifted enough that you don’t get the same species back.”