Mount Rainier’s wildland fire coordinator watches and waits

Jeff Walker is playing a watching and waiting game.

In his 13 years at Mount Rainier National Park, the wildland fire coordinator has not seen conditions so dry so early in the summer.

He is watching the battle against the slowly growing Paradise Fire inside Olympic National Park. Discovered on June 15, the fire has grown to about 1,000 acres as it burns along the Queets River. The fire, about 12 miles from the Queets River Trailhead, was caused by a lightning strike at the end of May.

He watches for updates on the long-range forecast, which calls for warmer and drier than normal conditions into September.

He watches the short-term forecast that would include predictions of storms that could produce fire-starting lightning strikes.

“I’m definitely concerned with the way things are shaping up,” Walker said. “Things are about six weeks ahead of schedule in terms of fuel moisture.

“With things are as dry as they are now, if we get a good storm with lightning strikes, that could result in a fire that is likely to grow,” he added.

Wildfires are not a common occurrence at the park, where annual snowfall totals are measured in feet and it often lingers until mid summer.

The last fire the park actively suppressed was in 2009 in the Grand Park area, Walker said. It covered only about 20 acres. The last major fire in the park was the Redstone Fire was in 2006, burning a couple of hundred acres.

This past winter, however, has left the park bereft of much of its typical snowpack and a dry, hot spring has made conditions worse.

Right now, Walker is making sure his team of 40 certified wildland firefighters on the park payroll are prepared, and he is talking with National Park Service and neighboring wildland fire officials.

“A lot of it is lines of communications, knowing who to call, what they’re capabilities are, what resources they have,” he said.

Internal discussions have centered on the park’s wildland fire plan. Walker said the park is split into two units, a full suppression unit and a resource benefit unit.

The full suppression unit covers developed areas such as Longmire and Paradise, where fire would threaten the park’s infrastructure and visitor services.

The resource benefit unit mimics the wilderness area inside Mount Rainier, about 97 percent of the park.

“If we have a fire in that unit, we would take everything into account, and allow the fire do what it is supposed to do,” Walker said.

In most years, small fires are allowed to progress if they will burn a buildup of fuels on the forest floor. It’s part of the natural cycle, Walker said.

This year, however, the decision to suppress a fire might be made quicker.

The extremely dry conditions, and a concern about a lack of resources as the fire season progresses, have fire officials opting to fight fires rather than let them burn.

That is the case at Olympic National Park. While the Paradise Fire is burning in the remote southwest corner of the park, and in difficult terrain, the decision was made to battle the blaze.

By Thursday, there were more than 100 firefighters on the scene, assisted by three helicopters. The Pacific Northwest National Incident Management Organization was taking over the management of the fire.

“What we do has to be viewed with what’s going on regionally, where resources are and what is going,” Walker said.

“While we might want to allow to a fire to do what it does naturally, that might not be an option. So much comes down to what is what is happening with our close in neighbors and what is happening regionally.”

Given the conditions, I asked Walker if would consider manning the remaining fire lookouts in the park.

With current budget constraints, he answered, that is not an option.

He said park staff would talk to people planning to camp in the backcountry, where fires are not permitted.

As for any bans on campfires in the park’s car campgrounds, Walker said the park follows the county burn bans.

“That has only happened a couple of times when we banned all campfires in the car campgrounds,” he said.

For now, Walker watches and waits.

“Visitors have been noticing how dry things are. Our rivers and streams are running at midsummer levels already and its only mid-June,” he said.