The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The West is so dry even a rain forest is on fire

Paradise Fire on June 21. (National Park Service)

In a normal year, Washington state’s Olympic National Park is arguably the wettest place in the continental U.S. An annual 150 inches of rain inundate the park’s western slopes, soaking the soil and slicking the branches of the lush temperate rain forest that grows there. Mosses, lichens and ferns festoon the trunks of centuries-old trees, whose thick canopy casts the forest floor into damp, dark shadow. The landscape has a primordial feel to it — cloaked in mist and swathed in green, it looks as though a dinosaur could come stomping out of the underbrush at any minute.

But this is not a normal year.

This year, ancient tree trunks smolder at their base as they burn from within. The downed wood and debris that carpet the forest floor have dried up into kindling. The abundant lichens that are characteristic of this type of rain forest are now facilitating the fire that’s burning it up: The flammable plant-like organisms pass the flames from tree to tree. As they burn, they drop from tree trunks to the ground, spreading the fire there as well.

Now in its third month, the Paradise Fire has consumed nearly 1,600 acres of forest, making it the largest since the park was founded. According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Web site, officials don’t expect to have the fire contained until Sept. 30.

A video posted to Facebook shows the Paradise Fire quickly burning up a tree in Washington state’s Olympic National Park. (Video: Paradise Fire)

That a wildfire has been able to burn so extensively and for so long in a rain forest is a testament to the severity of the drought that has wracked the American West from California to Alaska. Olympic National Park — which occupies much of the Olympic Peninsula just west of Seattle — just endured its driest spring in over 100 years and a winter snow pack that was a mere 14 percent of average, according to the Park Service. The glaciers that sit on the upper slopes of the park’s mountains and feed its many streams have been receding for decades — Bill Baccus, a park scientist, told the Seattle Times that the ice sheets have shrunk by 35 percent in the past 30 years.

Even though fire seems incongruous with a rain forest, this is by no means the first time that Olympic National Park has burned. In many forests, fires are part of the natural cycle of growth — not unlike the “Firebird Suite” in Fantasia, minus the woodland sprite.

But this year’s historic conditions on the Olympic Peninsula have conspired to create a historic blaze, one that even seasoned firefighters rarely see. Rather than raging, this fire smolders, burning its way up tree trunks and through decaying debris but only occasionally flaring into the kind of vibrant conflagration the word “forest fire” usually evokes. Officials believe that the Paradise Fire was sparked by lightning and burned in steady secrecy for about a month before it was reported on June 15.

Still, there are plenty of hot, dry days of summer left, each with the potential for the smoldering to turn into a “crown fire” that engulfs the treetops.

For now, the hot spots are identified from above only by the thick white smoke that billows up from the canopy. But from within the forest, firefighter Dave Felsen told the Seattle Times, the fire damage is immediately apparent. The Paradise Fire isn’t just clearing away excessive growth, as an ordinary fire would do — it’s eating away at a centuries-old ecosystem. Flames carve out deep gashes in the massive trunks of ancient Sitka spruce, some of the largest and oldest trees in the world. The weakened trees smolder, then, with an ominous crack, topple to the forest floor.

“They are falling down regularly,” Felsen said. “You can hear cracking and you try to move, but it’s so thick in there that there is no escape route if something is coming at you.”

Because the Olympic rain forest is so different from the kinds that fire crews are used to fighting in, many of their traditional containment tactics won’t work. Felsen said the massive trees and thick growth make it impossible to effectively cut a fire line — a swath of land where potential fuel has been cleared away, preventing the fire from spreading.

And the fact that the fire is downing so many trees is worrying to scientists, who fear that fires like the Paradise blaze might change the makeup of this primeval rain forest. The Sitka spruce, which has thin bark and a relatively shallow root system, is especially vulnerable, according to the Seattle Times. If the ancient trees are burned down, they may not be able to grow back and would instead be replaced by younger, newer types of trees, fundamentally changing the landscape.

A few wet days and cooler conditions helped to slow the fire this weekend, the Peninsula Daily News reported, but firefighters are still a long way from extinguishing the blaze.

Meanwhile, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group is monitoring dozens of active wildfires raging across the country. In Alaska, more than 2 million acres have burned, with months of fire season still left to go. California’s fire agency says it has already responded to 1,000 more incidents than it does in an average year. It reached that milestone in 2014 too — but not until September.

Conditions this year are worse than anything seen since the 1970s, Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott told The Post earlier this month.

“Things are just critically dry,” he said.