Recovery From Tyee Creek Fire Is Going To Be Slow And Costly -- Huge Chelan County Blaze Leaves Its Scars On Both Land And Psyche
ENTIAT, Chelan County - The foot-tall cowboy, made from nuts and bolts, stands in front of a brass plaque bearing the proud message, "I survived the Tyee Fire 1994."
The iron figurine was on the living-room mantle when Shorty Long's house was destroyed, a casualty of the fire that raged across 187,000 Chelan County acres in July and August. It's the only thing he salvaged from the rubble.
"Life is tough no matter what you do," says Long, 79, whose wife of 52 years died just a year earlier. "It's not so bad except you miss so many things. You want to do something and then you realize you don't have the tools for the chore."
Long's home, on the banks of the Entiat River about 10 meandering country miles from town, was one of just 37 lost in the fires that scorched more than 210,000 acres in central Washington last summer.
Most homeowners are rebuilding, though a few chose not to, and the government is helping nature along in the devastated wilderness.
Crews took care of short-term environmental rehabilitation last fall at a cost of $20 million. They laid logs across 5,000 acres of bare hillsides and aerially seeded winter wheat on 112,000 acres to protect exposed soil from erosion.
Driving through a charred section of the Wenatchee National Forest shows the fire's path. Blackened tree trunks show stark against the March snow covering a hillside. All those trees are dead.
With the loss of vegetation that helps soak up precipitation and prevent mudslides, experts expect floods in the next couple of years," says Tim Foss, the U.S. Forest Service's team leader on the recovery project.
"It's a matter of when, not if," Foss says. "So many acres that were burnt so badly that they have no vegetation"
One of the possibilities in helpiing the ecosystem recover is getting out the smaller dead trees. Loggers generally prefer to remove larger trees, which are more valuable as lumber, but it's the smaller trees that would fuel future fires - they're more likely to fall, adding to debris on the forest floor that feeds and speeds the flames.
As the Forest Service looks to the future, area residents have doubts about the way the fires were handled. Chelan County Commissioner Earl Marcellus is organizing a citizens advisory committee to critique last summer's battles.
"The purpose would be to try to come up with a better first-strike fast-attack firefighting network that is locally based," Marcellus says.
"Part of the problem last year was the fact that there seemed to be time invested in waiting for team leaders from out of the state to arrive on the scene. I just feel there's enough firefighting talent within Chelan County borders to come up with a very viable firefighting network."
FEDERAL AGENCIES SCORCHED
Marcellus is one of the most vocal critics of the firefighting effort, but not the only one. A town meeting he organized Feb. 28 drew angry property owners who believe federal agencies were slow to respond in the early stages, when the fires were still small enough that containment was imaginable.
Marcellus says his citizens committee won't include environmentalists.
"I don't believe nature let go on its own can produce as healthy a forest as we can do with proper management techniques," he says.
There are no easy answers. But life goes on.
Shorty Long built a new house on the foundation of his old one and moved in on his birthday, Oct. 4. He likes to look out from his deck at the Entiat River and the Upper Entiat Mountains.
Moving closer to town wasn't an option.
"I wouldn't know what to do with myself in town," he says.
He plans to do his part to help the forest recover. Three planters on his deck held tiny saplings he'd grown from seeds.
"You just have to keep going," Long says.
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