Wheat and grass sprout through the sooty forest floor, a sea of green surrounding islands of wildflowers.
The rebirth looks misplaced beneath the charred husks of pine and fir trees that pierce the canyon rims and dot the valleys of the Wenatchee National Forest.
Fire does that - even the worst fire in Chelan County history. It’s nature’s way of cleansing itself.
A simple lightning strike last summer - one of thousands between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades - blew up on Tyee Ridge, and fire marched over 140,196 acres in all directions.
The burn covers an area the size of four Spokanes - or one-fifth of Rhode Island.
At the same time, three other fires in Chelan County scorched 42,000 acres and threatened the town of Leavenworth.
When finally halted by thousands of firefighters and the first snowfall, the blazes had destroyed a huge chunk of public land, 37 homes and more than 100 outbuildings.
Fire on the thirsty eastern flank of the Cascades is typical, but the Tyee blaze was a mutant that evolved from man’s ignorance.
A century of fire suppression and of logging the biggest, most lucrative trees had changed the forest’s composition. Flammable underbrush flourished; spiny pines and firs dominated, only to become little more than kindling.
Nature rebelled on July 24, 1994.
“This was not a natural event,” says Tim Foss, who heads the current recovery effort for the U.S. Forest Service.
Left alone, nature would have continued to burn the Wenatchee forest floor every decade or so with low-intensity flames. Vigorous ponderosa pines would have survived and thrived, outfighting fire-intolerant firs for scarce moisture.
The forest now has 500 to 700 trees per acre. There were fewer than 10 trees per acre in the mid-1800s before the arrival of European settlers and their axes.
Now it’s up to man, the same force that changed the forests, to restore them.
“We have an opportunity,” says Entiat ranger district spokesman Ken Frederick, “to change this forest back to something like it was.”
The Tyee blaze and the others in Chelan County still were raging last fall when emergency first aid began.
Armed with $20 million of public money and more than 1,000 workers, a team of federal, state and local experts embarked on the largest case of landscape triage and physical therapy in history.
Nearly 135,000 acres were sprayed from helicopters with six different seed mixtures to hold the soil on slick slopes and reduce erosion and flooding.
The results were clear by early spring. New vegetation hugged hillsides, bathing in nutrient-rich ash, a kind of supercharged fertilizer.
Hundreds of miles of roads were fitted with 6,000 culverts, dips and drains. Hay bales were strewn across channels to slow down runoff. Dead trees were cut down and anchored across steep, bare slopes.
The next step is salvaging the dead timber and reducing the fire risk.
In an abandoned restaurant next to a Texaco station on U.S. Highway 97A, a dozen Forest Service scientists and support staff are analyzing the Tyee burn and what to do next. Their solutions, by law, must be environmentally sound.
Within two weeks, the team expects to recommend to agency brass that 50 million to 70 million board feet of charred timber - enough to build 3,300 to 4,500 typical homes - be logged while it still is marketable.
Other salvage sales will follow. And many more trees that are too small to fetch a price will be cut and burned to reduce fuels on the forest floor.
Bitter brush, a favorite meal for deer, will be planted in winter rangeland. Hearty pines will be planted in areas where the species thrived historically but was overrun with fir after man arrived.
Homeowners who live along the forest boundary are learning self-defense against fires.
Mike and Chris Mallon and their two children, who live in the Mud Creek drainage northeast of Entiat, could teach the course themselves.
Right after the nearby Dinkelman fire in 1988, the Mallons received permission to cut a fire break through neighboring national forest land. Using government advice and their own muscle, the family tromped through heavy snow that first winter to begin thinning out small trees.
Six years later, the Tyee fire raced over the Mallon property but stayed low to the ground. Their barn, jammed with highly flammable hay, was destroyed. But the house stood firm.
“We chose to live here,” said Chris Mallon, 44. “We have to take some responsibility.”
A quarter-century ago, several for est fires in roughly the same parts of Chelan County devoured more than 120,000 acres. They came to be known as the Great Fires of 1970. But they never had a pizza named after them.
At Troy’s Pub & Grub in the stoplight-free town of Entiat, population 650, the Tyee Fire Pizza features spicy hot chicken sprinkled with jalapenos and red chili flakes.
The fire forever will be seared into the memories of the residents here, says tavern owner Troy McKee.
People in the nearby lake resort of Chelan won’t soon forget either.
On a typical summer holiday, visitors outnumber Chelan’s 5,000 residents by 10-to-1. But for a month last summer, Chelan was a virtual ghost town as far as tourists go.
Lodges lost 10,000 customers a week. Revenues from the motel/hotel tax dropped by one-third. Lake Chelan, a skinny glacial lake and the feature on many a postcard, just didn’t look as breathtaking with ash falling from the sky and smoke floating over it.
“We were not able to provide a normal Lake Chelan experience,” says Loni Rahm, executive director of the local chamber of commerce.
The economic ripples took a toll on several businesses now counting on this year to rebound, she says. “A lot of really high hopes are pinned on this summer.”
When guests stopped staying at motels last year, the motels stopped needing nuts and bolts from Mike Mackey’s Coast to Coast hardware store.
“We lost approximately two months of sales,” says Mackey, a lieutenant in the Chelan volunteer Fire Department who saw 28 days of action on the Tyee front line.
Business is booming today.
The usual folks are back for the summer, and so are firefighters from Arkansas, Georgia and Virginia. Even buried under a cloud of smoke, Lake Chelan had looked like a nice spot to bring their families.
Rahm and her staff reviewed Forest Service payroll records and mailed handwritten postcards to all 5,000 Tyee firefighters across the country.
Other visitors, eager to see the damage from the fire they had watched on the national news, can’t comprehend the sight of nature’s resiliency, Rahm says. “The wildflowers this spring are phenomenal.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo; Map of area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ON THE REBOUND Developments in the wake of last year’s Entiat-Lake Chelan fires: A team of Forest Service scientists and support staff expects to recommend within two weeks that 50 million to 70 million board feet of charred timber - enough to build 3,300 to 4,500 typical homes - be logged while it’s still marketable. Other trees too small to fetch a price will be cut to reduce fuels on the forest floor. Bitter brush, a favorite meal for deer, will be planted in winter rangeland.