As Washington fires spread, threat of flash flooding rises

The Carlton Complex fire burns on the side of a mountain on Sunday in Carlton, Wash. Firefighters from all over the country have been sent to the area in order to try to contain it.
The Carlton Complex fire burns on the side of a mountain on Sunday in Carlton, Wash. Firefighters from all over the country have been sent to the area in order to try to contain it.
(Madeleine Meyer / Associated Press)

As if the Carlton Complex fire -- the biggest in Washington state history -- wasn’t bad enough already, meteorologists have heaped yet another plague on the suffering residents of north-central Washington: the possibility of flash flooding Wednesday.

The Carlton Complex fire began as four lightning-sparked blazes July 14 that merged into one. It has charred more than 250,000 acres, destroyed more than 150 homes and still threatens an additional 1,000 homes.




An earlier version of this post quoted Jason Funk of the Union of Concerned Scientists as saying that temperatures have risen in the West by 2 degrees Fahrenheit per year since 1970. The correct quote is “2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970.”


Evacuation orders remain in place, power is still out in many of the small towns affected by the conflagration, cellphone service is spotty, drinking water is iffy, and the fire has claimed one life.

And now this:

“Heavy rainfall may lead to flash flooding along the east slopes of the northern Cascades,” the National Weather Service warned in a message that threatened thunderstorms well into Wednesday evening. “Areas of greatest concern will be in and around recent burn scars from wildfires that burned in 2012…2013 and so far into 2014.”

In all, 18 large, uncontained fires continue to burn in Washington and Oregon. They have incinerated about 900,000 acres across the two traditionally damp states. More than 10,000 firefighters and support personnel are battling the blazes.

Early estimates place the costs to date of fire suppression at more than $71 million, and officials warn that the fire season really hasn’t even started yet.

Katie Santini, spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, called the weather picture a “kind of catch-22.”

“The cooler temperatures and the higher relative humidities will allow the firefighters to get in and get a better handle on the fire,” said Santini, who works for a multi-agency disaster response effort. “But it brings in the possibility of flash floods and makes travel around the fire more difficult.”

A state of emergency has been declared in Washington and Oregon, and late Tuesday President Obama signed an emergency declaration for Washington state to make federal assistance available to the hard-hit region.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who spoke with Obama during the president’s fundraising visit to Puget Sound on Tuesday, said the additional resources will be of particular help in removing debris and repairing or rebuilding the electrical infrastructure damaged when nearly 300,000 acres burned so far this month.

“These additional resources will significantly help our efforts to restore power to thousands of people affected by these fires,” Inslee said in a statement. “When I spoke to the president yesterday, he indicated he was committed to doing everything he could to help, and it’s clear he meant it.”

As the Pacific Northwest -- and several other states, including California, Idaho, Utah and Arizona -- burned Wednesday, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report outlining how climate change and rising development at the edge of the American wilderness has led “the soaring costs of Western wildfires.”

In a conference call with reporters, officials from the Interior Department, Union of Concerned Scientists and other organizations highlighted the worsening situation. The number of large wildfires in the 11 Western states rose more than 75% from the 1980-89 fiscal years to the 2000-2009 period.

The fire season has grown from five months each year to seven. And, according to the report titled “Playing with Fire,” firefighting costs nationwide have surpassed $1 billion annually every year since 2000. In 2013, the most recent year cited, firefighting costs reached more than $1.7 billion.

“The scientific evidence has made it very clear that the changing climate is the dominant driver of changing fire patterns in the United States,” Jason Funk, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told reporters. “Temperatures have risen in the West by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970.”

Forests are drying out earlier, he said, fires have more fuel available, droughts are more common and more severe, and winter snows are increasingly becoming winter rains, causing the snowpack that waters much of the West to diminish.

One of the results, Funk said, has been an outbreak of bark beetles “that have attacked and killed an area of forest the size of Colorado…. We have a tinderbox the size of Colorado waiting for that next spark.”

Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, said that private development at the edge of forest land has increased and with it the number of structures burned, firefighters killed and costs of fighting the blazes that plague the region.

“Since 1990, 60% of new homes in the U.S. have been built in the wildland/urban interface,” Rasker said, “The challenge is that the cost of fighting fires and the risks, the danger to firefighters, is incurred by someone else. It is state and primarily federal government who pays for that.

“Yet the land-use decision is made at the local level. One of the key elements to controlling or changing or altering future development away from the most dangerous places … is to have a higher level of financial responsibility on the part of local government for their land-use decisions.”

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