Our work on Buck Creek, like so many other burned trails on the district, will remain never-ending.
The flyers appeared in the fire shop the same week the heat wave showed up in the ten-day forecast. They Will Not Be Forgotten, read the words stretched above four headshots, four faces already familiar to me. I saw them every time I filled my water bottles or furtively replenished my cooler from the ice machine in the conference room. The plaque that hung permanently above the sink there displayed the same four photos, of the four firefighters killed in the Thirtymile Fire in north-central Washington’s Methow Valley on July 10, 2001: Karen FitzPatrick, Jessica Johnson, Devin Weaver, and Tom Craven. The flyers announced a Zoom memorial, hosted by the Forest Service, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.
The date came and went, but all summer, the hottest anyone could remember, the flyers still hung there. I shivered slightly in the heat when I saw them.
I’ve spent six years as a seasonal trail worker on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which sprawls from the crest of Washington’s Cascades east to the Columbia. I’m a west-sider by birth, growing up in Seattle surrounded by lakes and mud and moss and the saltwater sound, but after so many seasons working the dry forests east of the divide, this part of the state feels like home, too.
Every year in early June, the Forest Service runs a training on packing and working with stock at a ranch up the Chewuch River in the Methow Valley. (From the Interior Salish word for “creek,” it’s pronounced Chew-uck or Chee-whack, depending on whom you ask.) This year, it was finally my turn to attend. I liked interacting with the animals, learning to gently build rapport and respect, better than I liked learning to pack loads, struggling to remember the steps to specific knots and hitches, sequences of deft twists and loops of rope I strained to execute without losing tension in the line. But I did my best to pay attention as the sun climbed the valley’s steep walls, listening raptly as the experienced packers in the group spoke the language of their time-worn skill.
We camped out for the week—the first real warm one of the season—on Eightmile Creek, which drains into the Chewuch. That early in the season, I relished the heat, the possibilities it spoke of, the months of work in the woods still stretching before me. The Chewuch drainage in spring sparkled green, the bald granite tops of its steep forested flanks standing sharp and shiny gray against the bright blue June sky. It was hot, but the heat had not yet baked the world dry. It had been a record-snowpack winter and water ran, singing, everywhere. Higher-elevation trails still hid, indecipherable, under feet of snow.
It was hard to believe, in that lush late-spring landscape, that 20 years ago the Chewuch had been the site of the fast-moving and fatal Thirtymile Fire. That blaze—ignited fewer than 24 hours before it became lethal—burned with such extreme fire behavior, swept the canyon so suddenly and unpredictably, that fire scientists have studied it ever since. Several official reports, and a court case, have documented how a series of human errors, individually innocuous but collectively catastrophic, put the fire crew in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the capricious character of the fire itself, which killed four people while sparing others mere feet away, still defies explanation.
After the warm week at stock school, the weather boomeranged back to the tempestuousness expected of Gemini season. When the first 100-degree days snuck into the forecast at the end of June, we felt ready for the real thing. But the projections grew more ominous by the day as the predicted heat wave, which meteorologists were now calling a “heat dome,” sidled closer. Even on the east side of the Cascades, consistent triple-digit temperatures before the Fourth of July are cause for grocery-store small talk. One hundred and five, warned the weather report, before upgrading the prediction to 110, then 115, and I almost gave my phone a shake and a whack, as if its weather app were a malfunctioning vending machine or a cheap, off-kilter Magic 8-Ball. We got an email from the Forest Supervisor’s Office warning field-going employees to be on the lookout for signs of heat stroke, but no directive to take a day off.
We’d never canceled work for the weather before. Trail crews take pride—sometimes sick pride—in working through any and all conditions: heat, sleet, snow, smoke. But something felt different, ominous, about whatever was coming. Paper signs started to appear taped to the doors of businesses across the region:
“Closed, no A/C.”
“Closed Monday due to heat.”
Seattle and Portland were setting up emergency cooling shelters. (Over half of Seattle’s homes lack air conditioning.) As a crew, we eventually agreed among ourselves to take a couple days off work. No one above our pay grade offered any other solution.
The heat dome turned out to be even more deadly and intense than predicted. On Sunday, June 27, the second of three days in a row that broke all-time temperature records in Seattle, the National Weather Service wrote, “As there is no previous occurrence of the event we’re experiencing in the local climatological record, it’s somewhat disconcerting to have no analogy to work with.”
Cooler air finally blew in from the Pacific on Tuesday, June 29, dropping temperatures back into the 80s and 90s in western Washington, but over on the other side of the mountains, it stayed well above 100 into the weekend. Wenatchee, the nearest city to our ranger station, saw 114 degrees on Tuesday, breaking its previous record high by five degrees. A weather station in Peshastin, the tiny orchard town where I rented a room for the summer, recorded 119 degrees the same day.
Months later, official reports broke the news that the heat dome had directly caused 95 deaths in Washington, 96 in Oregon. Public health experts believe the true numbers could be much higher.
I was a kid in Seattle the summer of the Thirtymile Fire. It made national news as the worst wildland firefighting tragedy since 1994’s South Canyon Fire in Colorado, which killed 14 firefighters and spurred a wave of reforms meant to prevent anything like Thirtymile from happening in the future. The news hit particularly hard in our corner of the world, close to home as it was. All four of the firefighters killed, and many of the survivors, had been born and raised in Washington. Half the crew that got entrapped at a bend in the Chewuch River Road worked out of the Wenatchee River Ranger District, just like I do now.
Like many west-siders, my family had connections to the Methow Valley, that hushed and sweeping part of the state where the crags and glaciers of the North Cascades give way to piney foothills rolling southeast toward the plains. We’d started spending a week or so there every summer since I was almost too young to remember, staying at various rented vacation cabins, campgrounds, and friends’ houses. It’s in the Methow where I first learned to love the dry side of the Cascades, the summer smell of ponderosa pinecones in the heat.
Even before Thirtymile, I nursed an outsized fear of fire as a kid. I hated lighting matches, flinched from the sparks of campfires, liked baking cookies but got jumpy around the oven. I think it had something to do with a house that burned down in our neighborhood when I was very young. The image of the house’s charred skeleton, which we drove by often, kept me up at night. I’d also grown up hearing about how, as a child in the 1930s, my Grandma Donna’s already dirt-poor family became homeless after a house fire. She told me the fire started because her brothers were throwing lighted matches at each other. I wonder if it was actually that simple.
I was comfortable in the water, learned to swim early, never much feared drowning. But fire, to me, seemed a particularly violent and sinister way to destroy something. The story of those four firefighters, trapped by a blistering heat they could not outrun, haunted me.
Twenty years later, things have changed. I’m the first one to start building the campfire, the last to leave its heat, and I can’t resist poking it, constantly adjusting, seeking a more perfect burn. I’ve spent enough time in the orbit of the fire-industrial complex to know that hour for hour, wildland firefighting is almost never as mortally dangerous as the Thirtymile Fire suddenly became on that bone-dry July day. And I know now—as does much of the U.S. public—that wildfire is a natural process, a crucial component of the way forest and grassland ecosystems function, and that our decades-long treatment of it as a demonic villain to be vanquished at all costs, like the one of my childhood nightmares, has inarguably made the situation worse today. All that successful suppression has left us with unnaturally high fuel loads just when the changing climate is making forests more primed for ignition than ever before.
On the Wenatchee River Ranger District, a couple hours south of the Methow, Trails and Fire both work out of a low brown building across the parking lot from the main office, where the scientists, admin team, and the rest of the recreation program operate. This separation feels appropriate: while the trail crew falls under the umbrella of Recreation, I like to think we float in a cultural middle ground between the crunchier, Muir-and-Abbey-inspired idealism of the wilderness rangers, and the bromantic macho militarism of fire. If pushed, we’d surely tilt hippie, but we, too, swing tools all day and take pride in it. And because the fundamental nature of our work involves leaving traces—cut logs, freshly dug tread, native-timber footbridges—we harbor few illusions about some fantasy of an untouched wilderness.
It’s trail crew tradition to make gentle fun of the firefighters, standing around all day in their uniforms and heavy boots, checking the oil on their trucks and waiting for a call to come in, while we roll out early to spend the day cutting logs with chainsaw or crosscut, clearing brush, digging tread, moving boulders; work requiring the same level of fitness and tenacity that fighting fire demands, but with only a fraction of the public visibility. Not to mention the money. As a rookie firefighter, between overtime and hazard pay, I could make twice as much in a season as I do on a trail crew. If I’d been fighting fire as long as I’ve been working trails, maybe I’d own property by now.
But we appreciate each other, Trails and Fire. For all the standing around the fire crews do, there’s also the 16- or 24-hour shifts, the three-week tours, the always being on call, never having a real day off. I used to entertain the thought of working fire for a season or two—just long enough to settle my debts and save some real money. But I know I couldn’t take it, the dramatic swings between standstill and sprint. I like the predictability of trails, the steady pace. There’s always work to do, and no waiting for someone to tell us to do it.
As fires increase in size and severity, their fatal effects ripple outward.
On the trail crew, we spend a lot of time in burned, not burning, forests. Buck Creek is my favorite. The fire swept through that valley east of Glacier Peak in 2016. Ignited by lightning in late July, the fire lingered well into September, and after nearby roads, trails, and campgrounds had been closed to the public, suppression crews mostly just babysat the fire, letting it do its thing. It was burning in the steep, rugged country of the Glacier Peak Wilderness, far from any population centers, and it had been a wet, mild summer.
This approach—letting remote fires burn as they naturally would—is known as “managed fire” in technical parlance. It’s a piece of the new puzzle of fire-management strategy, one that recognizes the unnatural havoc fire suppression has wrought on landscapes, and seeks to restore some kind of balance, fixing what we’ve broken through intervention of a different kind. Western fire ecologists have known for over half a century, and Indigenous people the world over for millennia, that fire in some form is endemic to most ecosystems—decluttering forests, spurring new growth, pumping nutrients into soil, sculpting habitat. But it’s taken longer for a Smokey Bear-indoctrinated U.S. public to accept that not every fire needs to be suppressed, and for the gears of a bureaucratic behemoth like the U.S. Forest Service, which handles the bulk of the country’s wildland firefighting efforts, to shift.
By the time we can see, or finally accept, that something is happening—by the time we can say Look, there, no denying it’s different now—often the change is already unfolding faster than we thought it would, and the solutions we worked so hard to create and promote might already belong to an earlier era.
Time is compressed; the speed of change increases exponentially; the present we live in is actually already the future, the one we think we’re still watching warily on the horizon.
On August 3, 2021, at the height of a fire season breaking records set the previous year, Forest Service chief Randy Moore ended the practice of “managed fire” for the rest of the season. With 70 percent of the West in drought and firefighting forces already strapped for personnel, the stakes were simply too high to let any fires burn freely.
I never saw the Buck Creek trail before it burned, but I’ve come to know it well in its post-fire state. Norman Maclean writes that “you aren’t a woodsman unless you have such a feeling for topography that you can look at the earth and see what it would look like without any woods or covering on it.” If that’s true, then severe fire offers a nice shortcut toward becoming a person of the woods. One of my favorite things about walking and working in burned forests is seeing the shape of the land unveiled from shade and held up to the light, the undulations and interruptions exposed. Buck Creek, before 2016 a dense and damp spruce-fir forest like so many others in this corner of the Cascades, looks through some parts of the burn more like a desert playground, studded with bare boulders and knolls that tempt an aspiring woodsman to scramble. Volcanoes and glaciers—rivers of fire and ice—shaped these mountains, leaving unsubtle signatures until now hidden in the trees: tent- and truck-sized stones scattered like marbles, mounds of rubble piled into hummocks and hills. If anything, a burn turns MacLean’s challenge upside down: Can you look at the raw earth, the snags and dust, and see the ghosts of former and future forests?
In 2017, the year after the Buck Creek Fire, our trail crew got some funding for overtime (a rare treat) to clean up the damage. The Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response program provides funding for post-fire restoration—the only designated pot of money that exists to support trail work in burned forests, and only for one year after a fire. After that, post-fire maintenance must somehow be absorbed back into a trail crew’s regular program of work.
Working in a burn, even long after the fire itself has run its course, is hot: little shade, and in the first years after a fire, little vegetation to help cool the ambient temperature. And dirty: imagine kneeling in dust, handling charcoal all day; you’ll come back to camp looking like a central-casting chimney sweep.
And it’s also dangerous, hanging out under a bunch of standing dead trees. I’ve seen trees fall spontaneously without wind. When a breeze picks up in a burned forest, an unspoken tension pulls taut through the air.
Burns in designated wilderness carry a special set of challenges: no mechanized equipment, per wilderness regulations, which means no chainsaws, which means much more time spent in one place at a stretch, pulling a crosscut saw under that precarious canopy. Most of the burned-over trails on our district happen to be in wilderness. We keep an ear to the weather forecast on our two-way radios, try to have a rough backup plan if it calls for strong gusts, and make sure to identify, out loud to each other, the nearest stand of live trees where we might take shelter if necessary.
That first year on Buck Creek, we made it through the burn after a few days and kept chugging our way up, the work thinning out as the live forest thickened again. After the burn, the trail passes in and out of spruce-fir forests and open meadows, the sunny remnants of old avalanche paths. For the final two miles to the pass, the route climbs in earnest past the treeline, revealing an in-your-face view of Glacier Peak, over 10,000 feet tall, only at the last minute.
We didn’t reach the pass and declare the trail clear until well past our normal quitting time. Someone dug a flask from their pack and passed it around for celebratory swigs as we took in the sight of Glacier, stalling before starting the six-mile hike back down to camp.
People writing about the aftermath of wildfire like to wax romantic about regrowth and renewal, latching onto symbols of resiliency: first the fireweed, that pretty purple flower that thrives in the dust of disturbance; then the seedlings, pushing proudly toward the newly opened canopy, pioneers of the next arboreal generation. What looks like fresh green hope to a hiker can be a headache to a trail crew: the persistent brush that flourishes in the sun-soaked footprint of a fire will swallow a trail whole within years if not doggedly cut back. Brushing is tedious, especially with hand tools, but oddly hypnotic, as mindless, repetitive tasks can be. Still, brush is the bane of every trail worker’s existence. Keeping up with it is a losing battle.
It feels good, though, to see the brush coming back on Buck. Black-green moss covers the moondust, and the black-stemmed former forest runs thick with undergrowth. A charred old-growth Doug fir snag, two feet across, that I remember cutting four years ago looks much more diminutive with the willow and berry bushes overtopping it.
But the trees are still falling. This year, we cut close to 200 logs on Buck Creek alone, many more than we expected outside the original burn. There’s more growth on Buck, but more death and decay, too.
“I don’t remember the burn going up this far,” I remarked this year as we rounded another switchback to see another series of dry logs down across the trail. These trees weren’t charred black like the ones lower down. They were just dead, bark graying and branches shriveled and needleless. Had I just forgotten about the reach of this less-intense section of the burn?
We looked around and it hit us. Other landmarks, the shape and grade of the trail, the distance from the creek—this had been live forest four years ago. It had escaped the original fire, only to die in the years since. We speculated as to why. An insect outbreak? Or had these trees been not burned in the fire, but dried and baked enough by its heat to die slowly afterwards, their defenses down? One study of post-fire tree mortality tracked this, finding that “incomplete crown scorch” can still lead to tree death up to a decade after a fire. That study looked mostly at ponderosa pines, and Buck Creek is a little too cold and wet to make good ponderosa habitat, but the principle seems plausible for any species. As fires increase in size and severity, their fatal effects ripple outward.
Because government institutions love data, I’ve thought that if someone could figure out how to predict when and how many trees will fall after a fire, the Forest Service might be more inclined to budget for trail work accordingly. But there’s not as much research out there about this topic as you might expect. “Snag longevity”—the amount of time a dead tree stays upright before falling—is perhaps just too unpredictable, too dependent on a matrix of variables like species, climate, weather, and topography (is the snag on the windward or leeward slope of a hill?). The best study I found had conveniently been conducted right here on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. While emphasizing all the variability, it did show that the number of standing snags of all species declined sharply for the first 30 years after a fire, then gradually after that.
Three decades of clearing the downfall from one fire. Our work on Buck Creek, like so many other burned trails on the district, will remain never-ending.
And at the exact moment when so many fires are filling our forests with falling dead trees that cover the trails, the trails themselves are filling with hordes of hikers, hunters, bikers, birders, foragers, and gawkers, a wave of outdoor enthusiasm that gathered with the rise of social media, swelled when Trump politicized public lands, and crested as the pandemic fed a universal craving for fresh air and space. It hasn’t receded since. Meanwhile, the Forest Service is tightening its budget, cutting positions all over, and especially in recreation. We have fewer and fewer people to do trail work, despite needing it more than ever—to keep up with both the workload fire creates, and the flood of humans frolicking in its wake.
Twenty years ago, those investigating the Thirtymile Fire reported on how disorganized leadership, both on the fire itself and at higher levels in the Forest Service, played a role in the confusion and chaos leading up to the fatalities. In 2000, the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forests had been merged into one hyphenated unit, as part of an agency-wide push for consolidation meant to boost efficiency. Redundant management positions were eliminated, despite the fact that the forest they oversaw was now twice as large. At the time of the Thirtymile Fire in 2001, some of the Forest’s top fire staff were still working in temporary office space, waiting for headquarters to be rearranged.
Thirtymile shed light on some of the most extreme, if indirect, consequences of the brutal crusade against government waste. But the initial internal report released by the Forest Service focused blame for the tragedy on its victims, charging that they ended up in harm’s way by ignoring a direct order from a supervisor. Outcry from families and survivors (who maintained that no such order had been issued) forced a review that revised those findings. But the fundamental dynamics driving the disarray did not change. Consolidation has only accelerated in the two decades since, and it’s the workers at the bottom of the totem pole, those actually out on the land—fighting fires, clearing trails, checking wilderness permits, cleaning pit toilets—who feel the brunt of this abandonment.
Once burned trees have hit the ground, what will seek the sun they’ve left behind? The little spruce seedlings pushing through the black moss of Buck Creek might be in for a rude awakening if next summer brings as many triple-digit days as this one did. And what about the summer after that? Disturbance moves in cycles, but the Northwest’s signature forest communities—the subalpine spruce-fir in places like Buck Creek, and the cedar and hemlock bending over west-side rivers—have only been around a few thousand years. In terms of generations, they’re not much more established than the white newcomers to this neck of the woods. Just 12,000 years ago, all this land was locked away under ice, and the trees, once they did take over, moved through several phases of identity—several different iterations of species composition—before taking shape as the ecosystems that seem static to us.
Climatologists described this year’s heat dome as a once-in-millennia event, when compared against historical records. But—just as hundred-year floods are becoming five-year floods on the East and Gulf Coasts—scientists caution that such extreme heat will likely become much more common in the Pacific Northwest, a region whose residents have always comforted ourselves with the notion that we live in a “climate-resilient” corner of the country.
We’re blessed with so much water. We don’t suffer hurricanes or tornadoes. Topography limits our temptation to sprawl. Temperatures stay temperate. Until now.
What will the forest look like as it endures future heat domes? How long can it remain a forest at all?
As trail workers, we see these slow-motion changes close up. We more than see them—we feel a part of them, returning to the same trails year after year not just to pass through the woods as hikers, but to stop and interact, experiencing the forest’s forces through the medium of our labor. Logs to cut, brush to subdue, erosion to chase. Unlike the fire managers and policymakers strategizing to undo Smokey’s success, our interaction with the land doesn’t aim to influence any larger forces, to nudge the ecosystem toward some ideal state. We react to what we find, whatever the cause. In this present future, our work follows the forest’s lead.
By late June of 2021, campfires everywhere were banned. The fire danger went up to Extreme, where we knew it would stay for months. I’d never seen such intense fire restrictions so early in the season.
We spent the first week of July camped on Indian Creek, working to replace a bridge that had buckled under snow two winters before. We emerged from the wilderness to learn that the Methow Valley was on fire, a major highway closed as a result.
The entire forest buzzed with tension. All anyone talked about at the bars in town were the heat and the fires. Over the next couple of weeks, as temperatures stayed steady in the high 90s, topping 100 several more times, the Washington Department of Natural Resources closed all state lands to public use, and whispers spread that forest lands would be next. We joked that if the Indian Creek drainage caught on fire, we’d hike in and defend our new bridge ourselves.
The situation in the Methow went from bad to worse. Two fires flanked the valley from both sides and triggered evacuation notices across the area. My family cancelled our annual trip. For a week in late July, the Methow Valley had the worst air quality in the world.
Cub Creek, namesake of one of the Methow fires, is a tributary of the Chewuch. That embattled drainage, so idyllic back in the green days of early June before the heat dome closed around us, had been transformed again, recalling its dark legacy. Fire maps on InciWeb showed the site of the Forest Service ranch as one little green strip surrounded by swaths of shaded red that signified where the fire burned most intensely. All the horses and mules, we heard, had been evacuated safely.
I zoomed in on the fire map. The Eightmile drainage, where we’d camped during stock school, was right in the red.
Ponderosa pines had shaded our campsite that week up the Eightmile, one in particular that was impossible not to notice. One of the biggest ponderosas I’ve ever seen: solid, serene, the puzzle pieces of its bark stretched pale and wide, its trunk careening a hundred feet to the crown, emanating some kind of beauty that matched the glow of the long-evening light. I took a moment to pause in its presence every morning and every night. When I saw the map of the Cub Creek fire, I thought of that tree, and wondered what had become of it.
Ponderosas are fire-resistant, after all. Their thick bark and high limbs protect them from low-intensity surface fires. A severe fire like Cub Creek, the kind that can make an entire county’s air hazardous to breathe, might be different.
Trees that have lived as long as that one on Eightmile—perhaps 500 years, the upper end of a ponderosa’s lifespan—have done so by surviving countless fires, windstorms, and other threats. Like any elder, they bear the scars and wisdom of a long life in tumultuous times. Even as their own days wane, they gather the strength of their experience and prepare to pass it on.
As of early October, the Cub Creek Fire, which started on July 16 from still-unknown causes, had burned 70,000 acres and was 90 percent contained. The horses and mules returned to their ranch, which was likely saved by its irrigated fields. The stock will head to winter pasture soon, and snow will settle in the Chewuch. Next summer there will be a hundred more logs to cut on Buck Creek and so many other burns. As I sink the teeth of my saw into each one, I’ll wonder about all the things it’s been through. I’ll wonder what will come after to take its place.
Claire Thompson, a longtime seasonal trail worker with the U.S. Forest Service, just received a Master’s in Environmental Studies and a graduate certificate in Natural Resources Conflict Resolution from the University of Montana. She is working on a book about the impacts of climate change and extreme wildfire on public lands stewardship. Claire is the recipient of a 2022 American Whitewater Scholarship through the Freeflow Institute, and an Open AIR residency at the Historic Clark Chateau in Butte, Montana. A Seattle native, Claire calls the Washington Cascades home.