After the Washington wildfires: A report from the road.

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Your first sniff when you open the car door at the North Cascades Visitor Center on the edge of Newhalem tells the story: Did you ever put your nose really close to a cold, dead campfire the morning after a wienie roast?

That’s what Newhalem smells like. No mistaking that there have been wildfires nearby.

That’s not to mention the patches of brown, dead trees visible on 6,052-foot Mount Ross, just north of Highway 20, as you approach Newhalem from the west. Or the short stretches of charred trees coming right up to the edge of the visitor center’s entry road, just beyond the now-closed Newhalem Creek Campground.

Alarmingly, those burned areas are only a few hundred feet from North Cascades National Park’s main visitor center. The fire got much closer to that center than I ever heard reported during fire coverage.

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The 110-site Newhalem Creek Campground, the only campground with reservable spaces during the summer, did suffer damage. Fire burned part of Loop C, and also encroached on nature trails including the River Loop Trail, and the nearby Trail of the Cedars and Ladder Creek Falls trails. In the Newhalem area, only the very short Sterling Munro Boardwalk trail remains open (though it gives a pretty nice view of the remote Picket Range, including charmingly named Mount Terror and the oddly squared-off Pinnacle Peak, shaped a lot like Devils Tower of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” fame).

Ranger Katy Hooper looks over a stretch of burned woods along the entrance drive a few hundred feet from the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)
Ranger Katy Hooper looks over a stretch of burned woods along the entrance drive a few hundred feet from the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

The closures are a safety issue, park ranger Katy Hooper told me on a tour of the burn areas. Burned trees or branches could fall without warning. She wouldn’t let me in to closed areas to take a close look.

Safety assessments are underway but it will be spring before park officials determine what can reopen and when, she said. While some burned areas in the park and adjoining recreation areas continue to smolder, the overall fire rating has been reduced to 4 out of a 5-point rating system in which 1 is the most intense, Hooper said.

For park rangers, the fire is now something to give talks about, like other natural history topics such as animal tracks or bird calls. As we looked out at Mount Ross from the end of the Munro Boardwalk, Hooper gave a naturalist’s explanation of how the fire weaved its way down from the peak, following tree lines and stalling at rocky outcroppings, after lightning hit a single tree on or about Aug. 10.

Visitors look toward the Picket Range from the Sterling Munro Boardwalk. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)
Visitors look toward the Picket Range from the Sterling Munro Boardwalk. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

“This hillside is a good example of the mosaic effect of how a fire burns,” she said, pointing at the mix of dead, charred trees alongside green and unscathed patches.

That’s the take-home lesson: The brown and black blends with enough green to significantly soften the visual impact. In other words: It doesn’t look half as bad as you might expect. Few moonscapes.

What’s shocking, however, is not only how close fire came to the visitor center, but that it came right down to the highway’s edge. You’ll see a few burned trees and bushes directly across the road from the Seattle City Light “company town” of Newhalem. After jumping the highway further east, the fire essentially surrounded the town. Only the vigilance of firefighters kept significant investments from going up in smoke.

“I was surprised to see so much burned area, even on the other side of the river,” said visitor Dick McConkey, from Ellensburg, whom I met at the Gorge Falls viewpoint, about the easternmost point from which the burn can be seen along the highway. He and his wife make the North Cascades drive every fall, he said, calling it “the best time, before the snow comes.” Did the burned trees bother him? “No, it’s probably burned many times before up here, don’t you think?”

Worker homes at Seattle City Light’s “company town” of Newhalem escaped fire, but brown areas on the hillside show where wildfires spread. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)
Worker homes at Seattle City Light’s “company town” of Newhalem escaped fire, but brown areas on the hillside show where wildfires spread. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

The village of Newhalem, singed around the edges, looks otherwise the same, with tidy homes for people who work at the nearby dams, the village green dotted with picnic tables, the old black locomotive for kids to climb on, the flower boxes blooming outside the Skagit General Store (“est. 1922”).

“A lot of people are coming this way for curiosity,” said Kelly Regan, a clerk at the store. “A lot of people who retired from City Light, who worked here, are coming back to be sure we’re all OK!”

And what about that cold-campfire perfume?

“The first snow, that’s what we’re waiting for,” Regan said. “They say it will dampen down the smell.”