Fire on the Mountain: The Queets Rainforest up in Flames

Fire Burning Up The Slopes of Pelton Peak
Fire Burning Up The Slopes of Pelton Peak
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In late May of 2015, an unseasonably early thunderstorm rolled through Olympic National Park, giving visitors to the region a dazzling display of lightning and thunder for a few hours before the clouds moved away from the Olympic Mountains. Heavy rain quickly passed over the ancient trees, and the sun came out just in time for sunset. As the crowds flocked to the beaches and alpine ridges of Olympic for the beautiful display during the setting sun, a tree in the Queets Rainforest was slowly smoldering from one of the lightning strikes, its actions unknown by the thousands of campers and visitors in the park.

The lightning storm was all but forgotten, pushed out of minds, replaced by an endless stretch of sunny, warm days. In the Olympic Mountains, the last bit of snow below 7,000 feet melted away, and the river levels dropped. By the end of June, the drought that had been plaguing the west officially reached Olympic National Park, the proof being the crispy ferns and undergrowth in the rainforests.

With an average rainfall total for May and June totaling over a foot for the rainforests of Olympic, the dry forest conditions would normally not be an issue. However, Olympic National Park saw its driest winter and spring on record since 1895, receiving less than a few inches of rain. The smoldering tree in the Queets on an average year would have been extinguished quickly. Instead, 2015 had a different fate for this lightning caused fire.

An aerial view of the Paradise Fire currently burning in the Queets Rainforest of Olympic National Park
An aerial view of the Paradise Fire currently burning in the Queets Rainforest of Olympic National Park

On June 15th, 2015, I received a tweet from the wife of the Fire Management Officer for the Olympic National Forest telling me that there was a small fire burning in the Queets Rainforest. The estimated size was a mere 25 acres, and most around the region paid no attention to early reports. Fire is nothing new in Olympic National Park, with a few fires burning every year. Most assumed that this fire would go away within a few days; after all, this is the rainforest, right?

In most years, that thinking would be correct, but with zero snowpack, little to no rain and temperatures 10-20 degrees above normal for the month of June, the fire in the Queets Rainforest spread like, well, wildfire.

Within a week, the size of the fire increased to 800 acres in size, prompting park officials to attempt to suppress it before it got more out of hand. As smoke jumper crews parachuted in, the fire started rising on the steep, old-growth flanked ridges jumping from the canopy of the extremely dry, towering giants. By the 25th of June, the fire had grown to roughly 1,000+ acres of old growth wilderness, and only 5% contained.

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Smoke has been visible from the popular visitor center at Hurricane Ridge for the past week, and backcountry campers in the ridges miles from the fire report smelling the burning forest and having low visibility due to smoke. Within a week, the Paradise Fire, as it is now called, has become one of the largest fires in Olympic National Park in the last decade, and could continue to burn throughout the summer.

The Queets Rainforest is one of the most isolated locations in America, seeing more elk and bear each summer than it does backpackers. Remote and gorgeous, the interior of the Queets is usually only seen by the hardcore hikers, thanks in part to the lack of accessibility to the region. To hike the Queets Rainforest, a ford of the Queets River must be done in the first half mile. With no bridge, the trail weaves through lush forests and impressive views before eventually fading away, 15 or so miles upriver, into nothing more than an ancient boot/elk path. The remoteness is both a blessing and a curse for the Paradise Fire, as its remoteness means the millions who visit the park will not be impacted by it. However, the inaccessibility of this wild region also means that fire crews appear to be struggling in containing this rainforest blaze.

The fire rages on as I write this, sending smoke over the Olympic Mountains and showing no sign of stopping. Rain is nowhere in the forecast, and even hotter, unseasonably warm temperatures are expected over the first few weeks of July. Because of this and the continuing drought, Olympic National Park officials have instituted a fire ban for backcountry camping in Olympic National Park.

The mood for the summer is somber, as it should be when one of the most pristine forests in the contiguous United States continues to smolder. One of America’s only rainforest ecosystems is burning, and could theoretically burn up the glaciated flanks of Mount Olympus, if the fire continues to grow. The drought and fires have reached Olympic National Park, and we still have three more months until the heavy rains return.

Updates for this fire are posted daily on the Inciweb website, as well as through my twitter feed. As the fires spread in the west, the symbol of this drought might just end up being the Paradise Fire in the Queets Rainforest, burning up sections of forest typically soaked to the core. The rainforest is burning, and it only looks to get worse.

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