Wenatchee on Fire!? The Great Escape!
I was driving back to town on a Sunday afternoon. The temperature was over 100 °F and there was a constant, dry wind that was blowing across town. I noticed that there was a small fire that broke out northwest of town. It looked pretty small, so I did not take any interest in it. After relaxing and sleeping in the afternoon, I noticed that the sky looked darker than it should, but I assumed it was just clouds moving through the area. Around dusk, I heard a massive helicopter fly over the apartments I was staying in. I looked out from the balcony and noticed it was one of those water helicopters they used to put out the fires. I rushed to the other side of the apartment complex and noticed the massive black cloud moving over Wenatchee. The fire in the last few hours became massive and it was heading directly towards Wenatchee!!! D:
A water helicopter flying through the air as ash is falling from the sky.
The air was very smoky and it was raining down ash and debris from the hillside that was on fire. I decided to drive down the highway to get a better vantage point, while maintaining my distance…safety first!!! There was a pull off by the bridge and you could see the hill side burning!!! It reminded me of lava traveling slowly along the landscape. The Sleepy Hollow housing development nearby was starting to catch on fire as well! Some houses were burning and you could see police officers frantically closing off roads and ordering evacuations. When I looked back to Wenatchee, I noticed another orange glow…near the apartments I was living. I quickly got into my car drove back to my apartment.
Hillside fire slowly creeping along.
On my way, another massive fire broke out in the industrial district of Wenatchee! The fire was big and was spreading easily to the surrounding buildings due to the high winds. The fire was very intense as I drove past it. I decided to pack up all of my things in my apartment in case things got bad. The wind was blowing and the apartments were downwind from the fire. Smoke was everywhere and the skies were orange from the lights and fire. Tree borer beetles were now raining down with the ash. I made sure to pack everything useful to me. The industrial fire was eight blocks away and I could see all the firefighters and police officers down the street. The police were making their way towards the apartments. They were beginning evacuations.
Industrial fire spreading to other buildings.
I waited outside the apartments with my neighbors and their families watching the orange glow grow from the industrial fire. We were told to wait, because the roads in the area were crazy and the authorities did not want more chaos of people evacuating all at the same time near the fire. The hillside to the west of us was on fire and it was steadily moving in a southwest direction. We were hearing explosions from the propane tanks in the industrial area as the fire was claiming different buildings. They closed off the street right next to our apartments and I could see the police going into the parking lots to see if anyone was in any of the buildings. The BLM was located right next door and it was closed off. Only the BLM fire crew could be seen leaving and entering the building. A Bluebird company truck came by us and told some people that the ammonia tanks might catch on fire and that people should be prepared to evacuate. Instead of waiting around, I left for the Red Cross shelter in East Wenatchee, which was across the river. On my way, I parked by a Hobby Lobby that overlooked Wentachee Valley and saw three fires that were going on. The hillside fire was advancing southwards. I could see the firetrucks and crew members late at night trying to segregate and put out the line fire. The hillside fire looked like it was a fire snake slowly moving across the landscape. The Sleepy Hollow housing development was still on fire and the industrial fire was still blazing. I watched this until 2:00am before I went to the shelter.
Hillside fire growing towards the edge of Wenatchee.
I stayed at the shelter for a bit, but I could not sleep. In the early morning, I made sure to contact Krissa and Rebecca to tell them of the unfolding situation. The night before my bosses texted me and made sure that I was safe by providing useful phone numbers, evacuation routes, and areas to stay over the night. I also made sure to tell my family and friends that I was safe. Krissa and Rebecca did an amazing job and always kept in touch to see if all the interns were safe. Jenny and Reed lived further away from Wenatchee, so the fires were not that much of a threat to them.
Industrial fire that was down the street from my apartment.
I found out that five minutes after I left the apartments at night, they did an evacuation of our area. In the morning, they sent emails saying that it was safe to come back to the apartments. The hillside and Sleepy Hollow fires looked contained, but the industrial fire was still smoking. After I unpacked a lot of my things in the apartment, I took a shower and tried to sleep. Other people were returning to the apartments doing the same thing. The streets by the BLM were still closed and I assumed that there was no work today. After thirty minutes passed by, I heard a loud knock on the door and a woman on the other side was yelling about doing another evacuation. I answered the door to see a police officer and a woman telling me of an ammonia leak heading our way. I smelled the scent of chemicals in the air. I rushed and grabbed the main essentials and immediately left in my car. I found out a couple minutes later that the people who were left had to stay in their apartments, because the ammonia was so dense. They had to barricade themselves into the homes and block any openings. I went to the Red Cross for a bit before I headed over to Jenny’s place to collect my thoughts.
Still hazy! It rained for a few minutes and the roads became very dirty with ash.
By the late afternoon, the ammonia left and it was safe to return to the apartments again. I updated Krissa, Rebecca, my bosses, and family about the entire situation and how it improved. It was quite a day and it was very exhausting! Haha!! The industrial fire burned another two days before it was finally contained. We returned to work the next day and helped the Great Basin Institute crew with plant monitoring. After the week was over, I went to the west portion of Washington where it was cooler and had a lot of green vegetation. I visited family and went rock hounding for the Fourth of July break!! By the way, no one in Wenatchee wanted to buy fireworks after the fires. Those T.N.T. tents probably did not make a profit due to the firework ban.
The Industrial fire was still active a few days after the original fire.
Watermelon Hill, Here We Come!
After the blazing fires and some time to rest for the 4th of July, Jenny and I were given a special mission. We had two objectives on our plate. Our first objective was to help with rare plant monitoring of Spalding’s catchfly (Silene spaldingii). The second and most important objective was to record all of the invasive plant populations throughout Watermelon Hill. The NISIMS work here would be very difficult. The area near Fishtrap Lake underwent a severe fire the previous year. Many ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) were burnt to the ground leaving holes throughout the landscape. Invasive plants moved in with such vigor, that the landscape was dominated with the most common and frightening weeds of the West. The Watermelon Hill Fire created a Lost World and Jenny and I did not know what to expect. This was part of NISIMS and ESR work that was brought to us by BLM Legend Erik Ellis. I looked over the area and the number of transects we had to do. Jenny and I had to cover a lot of land within a three day period of time. With the temperatures being in the triple digits with an unknown assortment of weed populations, I classed this a Class 4.5 CLM Mission. It was going to be a long week…
Reed, Jenny, and I had to drive from Wenatchee, WA out to the Border Field Office district to Watermelon Hill, which was located near Spokane, WA. The first day we were split up into groups to do some rare plant monitoring of the Silene species and to get a better grasp of the land. Jenny and I went with BLM Legend Kim Frymire into Watermelon Hill. Walking along the roadsides to our Silene destinations I saw many grasshoppers, some vigorous native grasses, and a massive amount of invasive plants in the burned areas. The native plants did not recover much and the weeds took hold. Tumble mustard (Sisymbrium altissimum), cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), Japanese brome (Bromus japonicus), and North Africa grass (Ventenata dubia) dominated the biscuit hills in the area. Thistles (Cirsium spp.), rush skeleteonweed (Chondrilla juncea), St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum), and Dalmatian toadflax (Linaria dalmatica) were scattered in the understories of the scarred ponderosa pine. Houndstongue (Cynoglossum officinale), orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata), and quackgrass (Elymus repens) filled into the ephemeral stream areas. The landscape looked foreign compared to what I have seen in all of my previous internships. This was a landscape that was already taken over. It was Jenny and I’s job to record the invasive plant populations as best as we could and report our findings and GPS points to the proper authorities. We did find some Silene populations and learned how to monitor them, which was an interesting process that I will go into detail in the next section.
Burnt forest of Ponderosa pine!
What is left of a burnt tree. The roots did not make it. :O
After a nice rest in Spokane, Jenny and I prepared for the upcoming day. We carried a huge amount of water, put on the best sunblock, had our lunches and snacks, and had a fully charged GPS with updated maps of the Watermelon Hill area we were in! The day was long and hard. We had to walk across miles of burnt forests and hilly mustard prairies. The burnt forests had some recovering ponderosa pine that were able to tolerate the fire, but some pines and aspens (Populus tremuloides) were burnt to the ground. Even the root systems did not make it!! We had to watch our step in the ashy forested areas, so we didn’t stink into a burnt out root tunnel. Rush skeletonweed and the Dalmatian toadflax were the most common invasive plants we encountered. There would be huge patches along basaltic hillsides and in the understories of trees. The St. Johnswort always made an expected appearance. It was interesting to see the nature of each of the invasive plants. They each had their own personality. The skeleteonweed was very nervous and anti-social. The toadflax was extraordinarily social and plentiful in unexpected areas. The St. Johnswort was like a very friendly person that overstayed their welcome.
The bees did like the thistles!
One of the scarier sites to see were the tumbling mustard prairies. These landscapes had hills and were actually layered like a cake!! The ground around the biscuit hills were comprised of North Africa grass. The next layer up the hill were the brome species such as cheatgrass and Japanese brome. The candles on the cake were the tumbling mustards that were so dense you could not walk through them easily. One of my biggest fears was the North Africa grass. In my previous internships, they considered this grass worse than cheatgrass once it was established. I consider it the Deinonychus of the invasive plants!! Cheatgrass would probably be the Compsognathus of introduced grasses. One of the most frightening invasive grasses I did see was the medusahead grass (Taeniatherum caput-medusae)….D: This grass was like the Giganotosaurus of every invasive grass. Very mean, extraordinarily aggressive and took over everything and anything. Fortunately for Jenny and I, the medusahead remained in isolated populations.
North Africa grass, brome, and tumble mustard prairie >_>
Close up of one of the biscuits. So many annual plants!! D:
Conversation with Medusahead after spending eight hours in the field under the intense sun in high temperatures.
(Walks up to medusahead grass with GPS)
Justin: Sir, do you know why I stopped over here to talk to you?
Medusahead: (Rustles slightly in the wind)
Justin: Well, I heard complaints in the area from other native plants and even invasive plants that you were trying to aggressively take over the area and making the area more prone to fires.
Medusahead: (Stands perfectly still)
Justin: I could see that you have spread into one of the biscuits and not even cheatgrass wants to grow near you.
Medusahead: (Stands perfectly still)
Justin: Hmm….that was not really nice of you to displace your neighbors… (sigh) I guess I have to write you up…
Medusahead: (Shakes aggressively in the wind)
Justin: Let me see…your population is over 0.1-0.5 acres in length… you are scattered throughout the landscape… I estimate that there are over six medusahead grasses in a square meter….using ocular estimate of course…
Medusahead: (Shakes aggressively in the wind and some seeds cling onto my shoe)
Justin: Sir….SIR! Excuse me. There is no need for that. I am also writing you up for seed setting. (Pulls out a single medusahead plant) Let that be a lesson to all of you. No more trying to pretend like you are Squirrel tail grass, I know what you are…
Medusahead: (Shivers in the wind)
Justin: Hey. Not my problem, I am only doing my job. If you need clarification, speak to one of the Range Cons or weed people, I am sure they will tend to you. Have a nice day.
Squirreltail (Elymus elymoides) on the left and medusahead on the right.
Where art thou, Silene spaldingii!?
After a few days of recording invasive plants for NISIMS, Jenny and I finally completed transects for Watermelon Hill. Our next mission was to find Reed and Lorna and help them monitor Silene spaldingii!! This catchfly could be found on north aspects of a hill within or near various sagebrush. They were considered a threatened plant species and evaluation of their populations were needed at the time. Jenny and I did a lot of driving and hiking to the north of Ritzville. After forty-five minutes we met up with Reed and Lorna!! They set up a specific perimeter around the catchfly population and put orange flags next to each plant. We measured size, phenology, damage, and how many stems were on each plant. Site pictures were taken and notes were being written down. After a few sites, we were done!! After an exhausting week, we were finally done with NISIMS. Helping the S.O.S. botany CLM interns at the end of our work week was the icing on the cake!!
Silene spaldingii \(O_O\)
Your Moment of Zen…