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Paradise Fire Presents A Difficult Puzzle For Washington Firefighters

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More than 1,600 acres of old growth rain forest have burned in Washington's Olympic National Park. It's the largest fire but not the first to burn in the rain forests of the park. Ashley Ahearn from member station KUOW reports.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: The Paradise Fire is burning in such a remote valley, that so far, the only way to deliver supplies and firefighters has been by helicopter or mule train. The response team here at headquarters is communicating with crews on the ground via satellite.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fire's still burning. It's still got pockets of some heat in there.

AHEARN: This fire is unlike anything the response team has seen before. Chris Erickson has been handling fires for the forest service for more than 30 years.

CHRIS ERICKSON: When I heard we were coming, I was like, how are we going to do fire in a rain forest - I mean, how is it burning? But it is so dry.

AHEARN: Normally these forests are wet, full of ferns and massive trees maybe 500 years or older, and lined with moss and lichen like they're wearing sweaters. Now the moss is crispy and dry like kindling.

Lee Freeman pipes in from the fire line to describe what he's seeing.

LEE FREEMAN: Once when you get a spark that goes up the tree then as it gets up into that thicker stuff up around the limbs, then it just absolutely falls out burning, then it lights-up all the moss down on the forest floor.

AHEARN: There have been fires in the Olympic Mountains before, but if you're just hiking along, it's really hard to tell that you're in an area that burned maybe centuries ago.

MARK HUFF: Your average person, being at a crime scene, they don't see much. But a detective would actually begin to see all the little pieces being put together and what avenues to go down to look for evidence.

AHEARN: Mark Huff has been studying wildfires in the Olympics for more than 30 years. We're hiking along the Sol Duc River in a section of forest that burned almost 150 years ago.

HUFF: There's a big one down there. I think we're going to have to get off the trail.

AHEARN: Huff takes off into the underbrush towards a massive burned-out trunk maybe 40 feet tall and wide enough that together, the two of us couldn't get our arms around the stump if we tried.

HUFF: That's charcoal.

AHEARN: That's charcoal. This all looks like it's...

HUFF: Yeah, this is all charcoal.

AHEARN: A sure sign that the fire of 1870 came through here. But Huff isn't satisfied. He wants to find a survivor, a tree that may have been 400 or 500 years old at the time of the fire and lived to provide the seeds for the next generation of trees that sprouted up after the burn.

HUFF: We found one.

AHEARN: No way.

HUFF: It's over here, a Douglas fir that survived the fire. Oh, that's a beauty. Wow.

AHEARN: Rain forest fires burn in a patchwork pattern, leaving wetter parts of the forest untouched so big, old trees like this one can survive. And this patchwork burn pattern is an important part of the ecosystem. Burned areas allow sunlight to get through and enable new growth on the forest floor - perfect food for the 3,000 or so elk that live in these mountains. Patti Happe is a wildlife biologist at Olympic National Park who studies elk. She's also an expert elk impersonator.

PATTI HAPPE: It's a throaty, (imitating elk's bark), like that type of thing. It's a bark, though.

AHEARN: The elk bark to warn the herd when there's an intruder, like Patti Happe, when she comes to study them. She says that since the Paradise Fire started, the elk seem to have moved across the Queets River to safety. Olympic National Park is roughly a million acres, so if 1,600 acres burn, it's not the end of the world, Happe says. But as the global climate changes, these fires are becoming more common. Historically, the fire cycle here is every 500 years or longer. The Paradise Fire is the third fire in the Olympic rain forest since 1960.

HAPPE: It takes a long time to grow forests of that structure. You know, it can't all burn within a hundred years, or you're never going to get that structure back.

AHEARN: The Paradise Fire is expected to burn until the rains come to these mountains again in the fall. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn in Olympic National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.