By Eric Wollborg, Communications Manager for the Pacific Northwest Trail Association
Adapted from the PNTA October 2017 e-News
The Pacific Northwest experienced extended drought in the summer of 2017, following a wet winter and leading to one of worst wildfire seasons in years. Exceeding $2 billion nationwide, the cost of firefighting, borne by the U.S. Forest Service, has been the most expensive in history.
Communities closest to the fire have braved unhealthy air and the uncertainty of possible emergency evacuation from their homes. In July and August, some areas of the Northwest did not experience relief from smoke for weeks at a time, and some endured the worst air quality in the nation.
For many, the damage sustained to their favorite wild places has produced a sense of grief. In total, five large wildfires led to trail and road closures on or near the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (PNT) in 2017. Aside from hiking trails, the loss of old-growth forests in Eastern Washington and critical lynx habitat in the Pasayten Wilderness are particularly hard felt by many.
Driven by weather conditions and other complicating factors, fire behavior can evolve quickly. The Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA) and our partners at the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and State Department of Natural Resources coordinated throughout the season to quickly share information about closures and detours and to relay that information with the public to our online community and to hikers in the field, which served as a serious test of the PNTA’s new Trail Alert System.
For PNT thru-hikers, poor air quality and temporary trail closures only added to the difficulty of their long journeys. Some detours took hikers off of trails and placed them onto motorized routes, like dusty gravel forest roads and hot asphalt highways. In some cases, the additional mileage of 50 miles or more tested hikers’ resolve to connect their steps and “stay true to the thru” on their crown to coast adventures. Two eastbound hikers were forced to modify their routes by finishing their thru-hikes at Many Glacier since extreme fire danger in the national park had closed access to the Belly River Trail and the PNT’s eastern terminus.
The first fire of the season to threaten the PNT, the Noisy Creek Fire, was ignited by a lightning strike on Colville National Forest on July 15 and caused trail closures the following day. On the nearby Idaho Panhandle National Forest, a second electrical storm two weeks later set off the North Fork Hughes Fire along the Washington/Idaho border along very steep terrain in old growth forest. Together, these fires prompted multiple closures of roads and trails between Metaline Falls and Priest Lake.
But the wildfire which challenged firefighters and closed trails in the Pasayten Wilderness for three months became the largest to threaten the PNT. The Diamond Creek “megafire” remained south of the PNT for nearly a month before it followed a pathway of new fuels over Larch Pass and advanced north, and ultimately it burned across PNT and over the US-Canada Border. In total, it consumed over 127,500 acres. Roughly 22 miles of the Pacific Northwest Trail fall within the fire perimeter.
The full effect of the fire on the wilderness and the condition of the trail is not yet known, but the trail was reopened by the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on October 20 with appropriate cautions. PNT hikers in 2017 may have been among the last in a generation to see the wilderness before the massive burn.
Restoring the PNT/Boundary Trail in a massive wilderness, inaccessible by road and without mechanized equipment, will be a challenge. Those who feel the call to action can help by making a donation in support of our trail crews and by looking for volunteer opportunities in 2018.
Unless otherwise indicated, all material in Pathways Across America is public domain. All views expressed herein are perspectives of individuals working on behalf of the National Trails System and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the Federal agencies.