In primarily remote areas of seven Western states, fires in the past few weeks have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of federal forest. The most recent fires also have claimed cabins and other buildings, but no lives. And so far, state officials report the fires have had little impact on tourism.
The forest fire season is still young, so it's difficult for fire watchers to forecast what lies ahead, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The agency, a forest fire clearinghouse, coordinates the firefighting efforts for the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service and works with the U.S. Weather Service.As of Aug. 24, the West had 31 major fires or fire complexes (more than one fire in the same general area) totaling 524,057 acres in six states - California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington, according to the agency in Boise.
The agency reported that 18,270 firefighters were deployed in seven states, down from 21,500 and 25,000 a few days earlier. Part of the decrease was because several fairly good-sized fires were contained, although, according to Joe Colwell, a spokesman for the agency, "we're still getting new starts."
The fire season in much of the west normally starts in August, though it's earlier in some parts, with September and October often a perilous time in California.
The long-term outlook, Colwell said, is for hot and dry conditions. "We've had some moisture and low temperatures in some of the areas, but it's supposed to warm up again. We've had some scattered thunderstorms, a lot of times without rain. That (lightning strikes) is what give us real problems. We're still concerned about what could happen."
To assist vacationers in the northwest, where fires continue to burn, five states - Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Wyoming - have jointly set up a toll-free Northwest Travel Conditions information line that is updated as needed to keep travelers aware of current fire situations. The number is (800) 704-3246.
The largest fire blazed in central Washington, where roughly 209,000 acres burned out of control in the Wenatchee National Forest near Leavenworth, a Bavarian-style resort town, and Chelan, a popular recreation area. The towns lie in an area of rugged mountain terrain about 120 miles east of Seattle.
"This is high season for those communities," said John Savage, Washington's tourism director. "Our guess is that Chelan County lost $10 million a week because of the fires. Now that the fires are almost contained, I think business is going to start creeping back up."
For Washington, the wildfires around Leavenworth, Lake Chelen and Stehekin are out. All roads in the area are open and the communities are open for business.
Other fires reported by the National Interagency Fire Center:
- In Washington, fires still burn in the Wenatchee National Forest and the Okanogan National Forest on the east side of the Cascades, covering 184,438 acres.
- In Oregon, a fire burns on state lands near Hull Mountain in the southwest corner of the state.
- In Idaho, 12 fires raged statewide, but mainly in the west-central part of the state.
"Most of Idaho's wildfires are located in remote areas," said Georgia Smith, an Idaho information officer. "They are not in heavily populated areas with lots of motels and attractions." She said no major highways are closed because of the fires. However, parts of the Payette National Forest are closed because of a 30,700-acre fire, which threatened structures in Burgdorf, Hot Springs and Secesh Meadows.
"Our No. 1 priority is public safety," Smith said. "The last thing we want are travelers hurt by going into areas rife with danger."
Said Smith of the fires: "It's nature's way of starting over, giving a certain portion of the land new life. It's a way of life out here."
- In Montana, there are 11 fires including one in the Bitterroot National Forest on the western edge of the state, Colwell said. The fire in the northwestern part of Glacier National Park was contained, but not totally controlled. Since June, Glacier National Park has had 14 lightning-caused fires, some as small as a tenth of an acre, said Amy Vanderbilt, park spokeswoman. The largest is at Howling Fire in Glacier's northwest backcountry. Vanderbilt said Howling Fire will be managed as a prescribed natural fire, instead of being suppressed or extinguished. "If we allow some of the area to burn, it would not only enhance some of the plant life and wildlife, but also break up that forest so it has natural firebreaks."
- In California, an arson fire that grew from 300 to 32,000 acres endangered San Luis Obispo. Another burned in Klamath National Forest (in the state's northwest corner), Colwell said. Two fires were reported near Yosemite National Park - one in the park, another northwest of Lake Tahoe - and three east of Los Angeles in San Bernardino National Forest.
Fred Sater, California tourism spokesman, warned, "Things are really dry out here as they are in the Pacific Northwest, so it doesn't take much (for fires to start)."
Forest fires aren't limited to the United States. A British Columbia tourism official said fires in the south central Okanagan Valley are abating.
The best advice for travelers heading for California and the Pacific Northwest is to call the hot line, and follow all campfire and smoking warnings. The cost of carelessness can be a disaster.