Summer wildfires are the new face of catastrophic climate change in Washington and much of the West. As summer 2019 unfolds, those who can, are making plans to become seasonal climate refugees to escape the smoke and unhealthy air. Find out what options there are who can’t leave town.
Producers: Martha Baskin and Daniel Guenther
Photo: Charles Luce
The border town of Arivaca, Arizona, is no stranger to migrants crossing through the desert and mountains in hopes for a better life in the U.S. The documentary film Undeterred, shows how militarizing the border can result in migrants dying in the desert and in the neighborhoods of towns on the border. The film was featured at the 2018 Social Justice Film Festival in Seattle. KBCS’s Ruth Bly recorded the panel discussion following the screening.
The newest hunger strike at Tacoma’s immigration detention center started February, 2018. KBCS’s Yuko Kodama speaks with Maru Mora Villalpando, community organizer of Northwest Detention Center Resistance, about conditions inside the Northwest Detention Center, for its detainees.
KBCS’s Yuko Kodama talks with Ed Dominguez, Seward Park Audubon Center Lead Naturalist, about wind patterns in the Pacific Northwest. Find out about the characteristics of the winds in our area and why it is windier on some days more than others.
The Washington State Department of Ecology says the fastest erosion on the West Coast is happening at aptly named Washaway Beach. That’s located between the southwest Washington towns of Grayland and Tokeland. Coastal erosion threatens not just homes and a vital highway, but now the multi-million dollar cranberry industry too.
Most places threatened by erosion try to fight back. As correspondent Tom Banse reports, the erosion at Washaway Beach is so rapid, to retreat or fight is in question.
First the ocean took a clam cannery. Then a lighthouse, a Coast Guard station and homes slipped into the waves. Then the ocean washed away the cove that gave the community of North Cove its name. The coastal erosion at this spot: unstoppable for decades. The school succumbed. Then the Grange hall, a post office and more and more homes. Now cranberry grower David Cottrell worries about his bogs. They begin slightly more than half a mile from the present shoreline.
David Cottrell: “Like New Orleans, when the water goes over the top of a dike that you’ve been looking at all of your life, which it’s never done before, it’s hard to imagine the consequences. I don’t know what is going to happen. But I know it’s going to be hundreds and hundreds of acres of land that gets flooded with saltwater.”
Saltwater would kill the fresh water-dependent cranberries.
The Grayland, Washington area has long been one of the centers of cranberry production in the Northwest. Third generation grower Cottrell says Native Americans harvested wild cranberries around here long before white settlers arrived.
David Cottrell: “This is something that has been here thousands of years. If it is lost, it’s not coming back.”
“There’s nothing like fresh cranberries,” added Connie Allen, Cottrell’s wife. “Those came perhaps from this farm right here.”
The rerouted state highway SR 105 serves as a dike and the last line of defense for the low-lying cranberry bogs. There’s a thin strip of land dotted with homes on the other side. That’s shrinking as the tidal channel at the entrance to Willapa Bay migrates north and cuts into it. Winter storms combined with tidal forces chew off an average of 100 to 200 feet per year. Retiree Jim Northup has calculated how long before the rapid erosion reaches his place, a block and a half removed from where other homes now teeter on the brink.
Jim Northup: “I figure my cabin has got between three to five years. In December, I’ll be 81 years old. So I don’t know which one is going first. It don’t make much difference. I’m not worried about it.”
Tom (slightly amazed): “You have a really good attitude about this!”
Jim Northup: (with a big belly laugh) “Well, what can you do? Who is going to help this?”
Pacific County Commissioner Lisa Ayers has observed reactions like that and more, everything from hopelessness and doom to people full of fight. Ayers voiced determination to take on Mother Nature after listening to a new assessment from a consultant hired by the county. The coastal engineer reported the tidal channel is now holding steady just inland from Washaway Beach.
Lisa Ayers: “With enough money, you can do just about anything. So if we get our package together, a good product, and take it where we need to take it, we may be able to get some help with that. But at least it is not where I felt before it was almost impossible to do a whole lot. I mean it looks like there is some attainability with some of it. That does make me more hopeful.”
The cranberry growers want to fight back too. So the local conservation district this fall will use state grant money to dig a trench at the foot of an old dike and dump in tons of rock to create a buried revetment. That means there will be an armored shoreline in place when and if the waves come. David Cottrell calls it a welcome “Band-Aid.”
David Cottrell: “One may not be able to win, but we can play to stalemate is what I’m seeing right now.”
The Washington State Department of Transportation is drawing up plans to reinforce the sole highway along this stretch of coast with more armor rock. A sand berm out in the bay paid for by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the Shoalwater Bay Indian Reservation is holding up. Still, tribal leaders have resolved to move uphill over the long term. Unlike people and homes though, cranberry bogs can’t be moved.
Some Northwest cities, counties and private developers are going beyond the minimums in the state building codes to reduce wildfire risk. They’re banning shingle roofs and requiring fire-resistant siding. They’re also making homeowners mind their landscaping. Correspondent Tom Banse has more from near Spokane.
Left: Developer Chris Heftel (right) and homeowner Mike Thompson discuss wildfire safety measures in the River Bluff Ranch community north of Spokane.
Developer Chris Heftel made an interesting choice when he converted a forested hillside and grazing land into a gated community called River Bluff Ranch. There are websites and brochures full of advice for how to build in wildfire country like this. In this development though, the tips are not merely advice, they’re the rule – enforced by covenants on the properties.
Chris Heftel: “If it was voluntary, you’d have some compliant, some non-compliant. The non-compliant homes put everybody else at risk.”
Heftel takes me to a lane of custom homes and points out common features such as the asphalt composition roofs.
Chris Heftel: “Almost impossible to set those on fire from an ember or something coming down and landing on them as opposed to say, a shake roof.”
Home siding also has to be nonflammable or fire resistant, typically accomplished here with fiber-cement board, such as HardiePlank accented with stone veneer.
Landscaping is the other critical piece.
Chris Heftel: “It’s not just the construction materials, but it’s also maintaining the defensible space around your home.”
Individual homeowners must keep their yards “lean and green” – as they call it. Many installed a rockery ring around their foundations. These measures combined can’t guarantee a fire-proof neighborhood, but Heftel says they would affect a wildfire’s behavior around the homes.
Chris Heftel: “It’s going to burn much less hot and probably travel more slowly, easier for fire responders to get it under control.”
Two other Northwest developments taking this approach to be safer from the start include the big Suncadia Resort near Roslyn, Washington, and The Tree Farm subdivision outside Bend, Oregon. Suncadia’s construction guidelines additionally require indoor sprinklers in new residential homes.
At River Bluff Ranch, resident Mike Thompson says “Firewise” features were on his mind when he and his wife were house hunting.
Mike Thompson: “Knowing that the developer Chris had gone through and done limbing (i.e., trimmed dead tree limbs up from the ground) and cleaned out the underbrush and done some of those things to make it more protected was definitely something for us that was a good selling point.”
Thompson says he doesn’t think he paid “all that much more” for his fire-resistant, ridgetop ranch home. The retired fire chief now heads the development’s homeowner association, which provides ongoing enforcement of those covenants.
So there’s a case where a developer and homeowners are imposing rules on themselves. A slowly growing number of Northwest cities and counties are applying similar rules to everyone who builds in wildfire prone zones.
Alan Crankovich: “You know, I’m an advocate for property rights…”
Former Kittitas County Commissioner Alan Crankovich got the ball rolling for his central Washington county to adopt what is known as the Wildland Urban Interface Code.
Alan Crankovich: “You are asking to build a home in an area where there has traditionally not been (one). So now, to me to allow you to do that there comes a personal responsibility to provide some protection for yourself as well as the surrounding landowners.”
California years ago led the way on this. Yakima and Douglas counties in central Washington and Jackson County in southern Oregon have also added wildfire protection rules to their building codes. The cities of Wenatchee and Boise have too, motivated by experience with destructive fires. Cowlitz County, Washington, looks to be next in line to act. Bend, Oregon and surrounding Deschutes County are also taking a hard look at this. But that leaves far more Pacific Northwest counties not on board. Earlier this year a firefighters association asked the Washington Legislature to make a model wildfire code apply statewide. But realtors, homebuilders and counties snuffed out that proposal with the argument that a “one size fits all” solution is inappropriate.
Gaze across the mountains of the Northwest these days and you may notice an unusual number of dead firs, pines and other conifer trees scattered among the green ones. Drought is usually considered the prime culprit. But recent research suggests the damage that has historically been done to conifer forests by routine dry spells is being compounded by climate change. Jefferson Public Radio’s Liam Moriarty reports:
On a clear sunny morning, I join Matt Krunglevich on the side of Mount Ashland. He points toward the hillside to the west, and says, “The biggest key you can see is these pockets of dead and dying trees, the red needles, and then some of the ones that were probably from two or three years ago, that are gray now.”
Krunglevich is with the Oregon Department of Forestry. He says that it’s easy to miss, but once you start tuning your eye to notice the rust red and gray amidst the green, you notice those dead trees all over the place. So, what’s going on? “Basically,” says Krunglevich, “that’s where the trees are starting to succumb to insects and pathogens. In the last several years, the combination of the drought, the longer summers and maybe a couple of fires that we’ve had have caused the insect and disease populations to increase, and we’re really starting to see the effects of that.”
He takes me further up Mount Ashland for a closer look at the dying trees. We scramble down a hillside to look at a few trees that have been cut down and left.
He takes out a hatchet and chips away some of the dead tree’s bark to reveal the insect damage underneath. He says that what these insects–likely turpentine beetles–go after is the cambium layer, drilling down through the bark to reach it. The bug is tiny, “about the size of a piece of pencil lead,” as Krunglevich says. “He’s gonna try to go out and eat some more trees.”
What foresters call “drought related conifer mortality” is reaching record levels throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. A 2009 study by researchers from the University of Washington, Oregon State University and federal agencies found the rate of tree death in the region had doubled over the preceding 17 years. Max Bennett, an Oregon State University Extension agent in the Rogue Valley, says he’s seen the situation getting worse: “The level of mortality, of tree die-back, this year is the most that I’ve seen in the 16 years since I’ve been down here.”
Bennett took note of the weather data during the most recent drought in southern Oregon, from 2013 to 2015. “In Medford,” he noted, “for that 36 month period, 26 of the 36 months had below-average rainfall and 31 of the 36 months had above-average temperatures.”
Bennett says this has historically been a cyclical phenomenon; as drought cycles have come and gone, conifer die-off has fluctuated with them. But recent research at the Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico suggests that, as global warming increases, drought may be less of a factor than hotter temperatures. Plant ecologist Sean Michaletz contributed to that research. He says high temperatures put trees under stress not only by increasing demand for water, but by speeding up the tree’s internal processes, such as photosynthesis and respiration: “The rate of chemical reactions increases exponentially with temperature, and if temperature becomes too high, these physical processes can basically crash and stop working.”
While more frequent droughts are one likely result of climate change in the Northwest, the Los Alamos findings suggest that rising temperatures mean more tree death, even if there’s plenty of rainfall. That’s because warmer air pulls moisture out of trees and the soil. Los Alamos researcher Turin Dickman added, “Whether or not precipitation regimes change as temperature increases with CO2, trees are going to be experiencing dryer conditions.”
Dickman and her colleagues project that unless trees adapt quickly to the changing climate, pine and fir-based forests in much of the West could see massive die-off by 2050. That would likely lead to structural changes in Northwest forests, with new species of plants replacing the conifers. Meaning the forest landscapes our grandchildren grow up with could look very different from the one’s we’ve enjoyed for generations.
When Washington state wildlife officials announced they would eliminate the Profanity Peak wolf pack last month, they were operating under a new management plan. The plan came about after months of deliberation with various stakeholders ranging from livestock producers to conservation groups. But there were some parties left out of the discussion. Correspondent Emily Schwing reports.
Donny Martorello is in charge of the state’s Wolf Policy. He says ultimately, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is a “conservation organization.”
“We wouldn’t be removing a wolf pack if we believed at all that there was a conservation impact or an impact of recovery of the species in Washington.”
He says the state’s decision to eliminate Profanity Peak wolves is in keeping with protocols that were agreed to by nearly twenty stakeholders that make up the state’s Wolf Advisory Group, or WAG. Among them is Washington-based wildlife and wildlands conservation group Conservation Northwest. Spokesman Chase Gunnell calls the state’s management plan “the best in the nation.”
“It requires ranchers to conduct conflict avoidance measures and other measures to reduce or prevent depredations and it allows as a last result the lethal removal of wolves and we that plan as a whole is better from other states. It’s learned from the experiences in the Rockies and elsewhere and we are proud to support it.”
WAG members include cattle and sheep ranchers, private citizens and other conservation and animal rights groups like Defenders of Wildlife and the Human Society of the United States.
But some organizations believe WAG members have compromised too much when it comes to wolf recovery and conservation.
Roughly 80 people gathered at the state capitol to protest the state’s decision to shoot and kill the entire Profanity Peak Wolf Pack.
Amaroq Weiss is the West Coast Wolf Organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity. It’s one organization that is not represented among the 18 members of the WAG:
“The fact is we have seen this over the years, wherever there are wolves, when groups are coming to the table and compromising to that degree, wolves are the losers.”
There are other groups that have also been left out of the conversation.
An elder from Western Washington’s Cowlitz Indian tribe complained that exterminating the wolf pack violates native American treaty and religions rights. According to the Attorney General’s Office, Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is operating in compliance with federal and state law.
As for tribes, “there are no tribal courts that have any subject matter jurisdiction over these management actions,” wrote Niel Wise, Senior Counsel for the Attorney General, in a letter dated August 29th.
The US Government and tribal leaders signed treaties in the 1850’s so that tribal law applies on tribal land. Essentially, Indian reservations are independent nations.
The Profanity Peak wolf pack’s territory is just north of the Colville Indian Reservation. Vice Tribal Chairman Mel Tonasket says the tribe has their own wolf management plan:
“So, basically what we’re saying is ‘state, you have your plan and tribes, tribes have our plan and we hope we recognize each other’s jurisdiction and sovereignty.”
Washington’s stakeholders plan to review that state’s wolf management protocols this winter. In Oregon, state wildlife officials also heard from stakeholders. A 2010 report describes those comments as “highly polarized.” The state killed four Oregon wolves from the Imnaha pack last spring. Idaho’s wolf management plan allows ranchers to kill wolves that kill their cattle.
You can find more information on Washington’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan here.
The 2010 Oregon report mentioned in the story can be found here.
After two years of some of the worst fires and smoke the Northwest has ever seen, Washington’s Methow Valley is catching its breath. Dozens of businesses didn’t make it through. And as correspondent Anna King reports, the fires still throw a long shadow.
Left: Kathleen Jardin owns Methow Valley’s Central Reservations and an art gallery. She says she’s hoping more people return to the valley for family vacations, reunions and weddings.
Perhaps on a trip back East or to the American South, you’ve visited a Civil War battlefield or two. These national parks and pilgrimage sites receive hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
During the decade before the U.S. Civil War, a different conflict made a big impact on the Oregon Territory’s future. It’s known as the Rogue River Indian War. But you’ll be hard pressed to find or tour those battlefields.
Now, a series of archaeological investigations is resurrecting this Northwest history. Correspondent Tom Banse went to southern Oregon to find out more.
Left: Southern Oregon University archaeology field school participants unearthed the remains of Miner’s Fort in Curry County. The pioneer militia redoubt was besieged near the end of the Rogue River Indian War in 1856.