EarthFix Northwest Environmental News

The proposed site of the reservoir is widely used by local outdoors recreationists. On a hot sunny morning, Jeff Becker and her horse, Vinnie, enjoyed a trail ride in a place that could one day be under water.

“I can see the point of maybe making a reservoir if it will help the situation with the water. It’s probably going to get drier in the future years, not wetter,” Becker said, adding that the DNR will eventually log the land anyway. “That may be a very good use for that land once all the trees come down.”

What's The Deal With Dam Removals?

Aug 27, 2015

In the past decade, several high-profile dam removals have happened in the Northwest. The Marmot Dam on the Sandy River in Oregon was demolished in 2007. Three dams along the main stem of Oregon’s Rogue River came down between 2008 and 2010.

Q&A: The Wildfire-Climate-Change Connection

Aug 26, 2015

Wildfire season is in full swing, with more acres burned so far than in an average year.

Here in the Northwest, we’ve been hearing daily about all the wildfires burning. Many more communities are dealing with the smoke blowing in from those fires.

Scientists are studying the connections between climate change, drought and wildfire. And policymakers and fire managers are trying to keep pace with new demands on resources as firefighting costs continue to rise. Here are some of the big questions — and answers — about the connection between climate change and wildfires.

Killing Seabirds To Save Salmon On The Columbia

Aug 26, 2015

It's after 10 p.m. and I'm on a boat at the mouth of the Columbia River.

We're circling around East Sand Island, where thousands of seabirds are nesting in total darkness. I'm pretty sure the captain, Rob Gudgell, thinks I'm nuts.

"Why did you want to come out at night?" he asks.

Eight fires are burning more than 4,000 acres in Washington’s North Cascades. The largest of the fires has damaged transmission lines, leading Seattle City Light to shut down power generation at three dams on the Skagit River.

The utility is losing $100,000 in revenue each day that the lines are down. Conditions have remained unsafe for repair crews to work on the power lines.

Q: Have the fires damaged the dams?

Bonnie Milligan has a big voice.

And in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival musical, Head Over Heels, she does a lot of belting. That’s the loud, powerful, high singing associated with performers like Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

The problem is, it’s been a smoky summer in the Pacific Northwest. Wildfires have had communities from Eastern Washington to Portland to Northern California gasping through days and weeks of poor air quality.

And belting and smoke don’t mix.

Air quality is classified as good Monday morning and visibility improved in cities along Interstate 84 and throughout the Willamette Valley after smoke from numerous fires funneled down the Columbia River Gorge.

The smoke moved in quickly. Satellite imagery from MODIS shows that it took about 24 hours for Oregon and Washington to be completely covered.

For Fire Crews in Chelan, Safety Is Top Priority

Aug 23, 2015

Fire crews Saturday had an easier time with wind in North Central Washington. That meant it was easier to fight the Chelan Complex. It also meant the area had unhealthy levels of smoke.

Smoke continued to rise from a smoldering fire a few feet away from a mobile home on Lake Chelan. Helicopters dipped water from the lake and dumped it onto hot spots. The area is still under a mandatory evacuation order. The fire, called First Creek, is two percent contained.

The Canyon Creek Complex near John Day is still growing, but shelters are closing up and people are heading home after days away.

By Sunday morning, the blaze had grown to more than 69,000 acres. Fire officials say a lot of that was strategic – they’re burning land with controlled blazes to funnel the fire into an area that was burned three years ago.

The Grant County Sheriff’s Office says 39 homes have been destroyed in the fire so far.

Still, many evacuation alerts have been downgraded and people are returning to their homes after days away.

The Oregon Transportation Commission adopted new rules Friday requiring railroads to increase the amount of information they share with state officials. Months in the making, the rules come in response to concerns over the state’s readiness for oil train spills and fires.

Emergency responders will now get immediate notification from railroads for incidents involving hazardous materials. Those notifications include information about the type, quantity and placement of any materials on the train.

More Than 875K Acres Burning Across The Northwest

Aug 21, 2015

President Obama declared a state of emergency Friday for Washington state, where several wildfires are burning uncontained.

More than 875,000 acres are now burning across the Pacific Northwest, as more than 9,200 firefighters and support personnel are working to protect homes and save lives.

Currently, the top fire in the region is the Okanogan Complex, burning in north central Washington. Fire officials said mandatory evacuations are in place for the town of Tonasket, where about 1,000 people live.

Environmental Update: Mushrooms And Bees

Aug 21, 2015

Honeybees are dealing with a deadly infestation of virus-carrying varroa mites, and for decades beekeepers have struggled to protect exposed bees. We check in with EarthFix's Ken Christensen to learn about how mushrooms may provide the cure bees have been waiting for.


Gov. Brown Visits Wildfire As Managers Watch Weather

Aug 19, 2015

"It is unrealistic for this state, for this region, for the Forest Service to be meeting firefighting needs out of their general operations budget," Brown said.

The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, also visited the area Wednesday.

He said the agency's ability to manage forests in a way that prevents wildfires is limited because so many dollars go toward fighting wildfires after they ignite.

There’s a large map of Oregon and Washington that hangs on the wall inside the dispatch center at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NWCC) in Portland.

The agency helps manage wildfires and it uses the map to track where they’re burning and the resources dedicated to each fire. A quick glace at the map makes it pretty clear there's a lot going on.

“It’s an incredibly busy time," said Koshare Eagle, a spokeswoman for the agency.

This summer, KUOW/EarthFix reporter Ashley Ahearn was invited to the other Washington to participate in NPR’s new storytelling lab. She and NPR’s Jeff Brady (a former OPB reporter) had two weeks to co-host and produce a podcast on national energy and environment issues.

“Ashley and Jeff set out to create a tone that was curious and fun and really succeeded – not an easy task when dealing with environmental stories, which can sometimes elicit an “eating your vegetables” reaction,” said Michael May, head of the NPR Storytelling Lab.

Thursday is the 105th anniversary of what's been dubbed "The Big Burn," a devastating wildfire that burned three million acres in Washington, Idaho and Montana, killing 80 people and changing the entire U.S. approach to forest fires.

A renewable energy company in Portland has cities across the globe taking a closer look at their water pipes.

Lucid Energy has designed a hydropower system that draws power from drinking water as it makes its way to the tap. Its turbines are small enough to fit inside a city water pipe, and they tap the power of gravity as water flows through.

Young People Sue Obama Over Climate Change

Aug 17, 2015

Eleven young Oregonians are among the 21 youth from around the country who have filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration, alleging that the failure to take action to slow catastrophic climate change violates their Fifth Amendment rights.

Crews continued to battle wildfires throughout the Pacific Northwest under hot conditions.

Statewide, more than 1,000 people were evacuated over the weekend.

The Canyon Creek Complex is burning more than 37,000 acres Sunday in the John Day area at least 26 homes have been lost to the fire.

Dean Elliot stands beside the smoldering remains of his home of 53 years.

"You could have put all the water you had on this," said Elliot. "And it would have never slowed it down."

He and his wife evacuated Friday just minutes before the Canyon Creek Complex ripped down a ridge and along the creek where they lived. They took with them clothes, some photos, money and two of their three cats. They couldn't find the third cat, but they're hoping it escaped the fire.