The Washington Wildfires: Carlton Complex Fire and Mills Canyon Complex Blaze

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Forest fire season means big ecological change for many Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Image by ren

Summer might mean lazy evenings around a bonfire to some, but to many in Washington State, fires are bringing fear and devastating homes.

Wildfires are burning around several small towns in Washington, and they’ve destroyed at least 100 homes this July in the towns close to the Okanogan and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests.

Carlton Complex Fire

The Carlton Complex is a combination of several fires: the Stokes Road, French Creek and Golden Hike fires that have combined to move quickly through an area with volatile fuel.

It’s situated in an area 180 miles northeast of Seattle, an area that’s home to many rivers. The area, however, is relatively dry, with an average rainfall of just under 13 inches per year.

The Carlton Complex Fire is moving through both tinder and dry brush, and its movement has been challenging, because in places, it has moved quickly through the tops of the trees in a process called crowning.

There has been an evacuation of the Town of Pateros, home to 650 people.

Mills Canyon Complex Blaze

The Mills Canyon Complex is also a fusion of several fires: the Mills Canyon, Chiwaukum and Kelly Mountain fires. It has closed part of US Highway 2 and has prompted an evacuation order for the residents of 860 homes.

The Mills Canyon fire is burning close to Leavenworth, a scenic town known as a vacation spot and full of Bavarian architecture.

While Washington is green near the coast, it is quite dry inland. Image by Kakisky

Washington State’s Landforms Help Shape Its Fire Season

There are currently four fires burning in Washington State, two making their way through small towns in the region. While the state is a green and damp part of the Pacific Northwest, its topography makes these towns on the fringes of the forest candidates for forest fires in the summer months.

Why is the Okanogan area of the state particularly prone to forest fires?

From seashore to desert, Washington State is an incredibly diverse state. Its forest-covered mountains help the rains come to the wet and mild coastal area. This area is part of the coastal temperate rainforest ecosystem, an ecosystem created by the confluence of land and water.

The Pacific Ocean provides ample water that evaporates into the air, while the mountains encourage that soggy mass of air to move upward. As air moves up the mountains, it cools, and the water in the air turns into rain clouds.

On the other side of the mountains, it’s a different story. Eastern Washington is a stunning near-desert environment.

Across the mountains in the rainshadow, the clouds disappear and the climate is warm in the summer and cold in the winter. Bridging these two environments are national forests.

With a warmer, dryer climate than their temperate neighbors and nestled in the forest, small towns on the edge of Washington’s dry lands are in a challenging location, the perfect location for a forest fire to start and spread.

California Drought; Oregon Fires, Washington Wildfires Burn

With a severe drought in California, fires raging across Oregon, and wildfires burning in Washington State’s forest edge communities, it’s shaping up to be a challenging season of fire-fighting in the Pacific Northwest.

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