The Enchantments wilderness area is on fire, and that’s OK

Smoke and ash from wildfires in Eastern Washington settled over Seattle earlier this week, making our skies heavy and our air harsh. As I researched those fires for The Evergrey’s rundown of what’s going on, it felt extra close to home. Why? Just last week, I was backpacking in the Enchantments, one of the areas that’s now closed to campers and hikers due to the wildfires.

That orange marker is where the trail starts to hike up into the Enchantments. (Washington Trails Association)

The Enchantments are adventure priority number one for many outdoorsy Seattleites, and it’s easy to see why. In the words of the Washington Trail Association, they’re “an alpine paradise of granite worn smooth by glaciers, larches manicured by wind and cold, and crystal blue lakes strung together by a creek that tumbles and thunders between them.”

📸: Sara Gentzler

So, when the sun turned an eerie shade of red and and ash coated our tents overnight, my natural reaction was to feel a mix of denial and disappointment.

📸: Sara Gentzler

The smoke and ash rolling in (which was likely from the Jolly Mountain Fire that’s still burning) was an instant mood-changer — my backpacking friends and I were restless and unsure of our day’s plans. We were going to spend the day jumping in and out of Colchuck Lake and napping on the boulders that surround it. Instead, we reluctantly cut our trip short and decided to hike back down.

When I returned to Seattle and the smoke from that fire (and others) kept invading my daily life, those feelings only magnified. Then I read that they were evacuating the Enchantments and I called Carly Reed, the lead ranger and Enchantments permit administrator, to learn more.

Here’s what she said:

The fire is doing beneficial things for our wilderness area.”

Wait, what?

Though the 2,000-acre Jack Creek Fire that’s burning near the Enchantments sounds big, it’s actually quite small, Carly said. And small fires prevent massive, more destructive fires like the ones happening in Oregon right now. That situation is scary, and incredibly sad for the people who call that area their home and frequent the Columbia River Gorge. (It was also very preventable… ) But what’s happening around the Enchantments is actually “phenomenal” for the wilderness area, in Carly’s words.

The Jack Creek Fire was started by lightning, not a human (unlike the 20,000-acre Eagle Creek Fire that’s wreaking havoc in Oregon). And Carly’s team of rangers is working hard at minimizing the effects for outdoor lovers like me. She said they had successfully evacuated more than 400 hikers and campers from the Enchantments within 12 hours, are refunding camping permits for the next couple weeks, and are keeping close tabs on what’s happening so they can get permit-holders back into the area.

If buildings or homes are destroyed from wildfires like Jack Creek and people have to evacuate, that’s the real damage, Carly said. So, if we’re looking to help, that’s where we should focus our energy.

If celebrating a forest fire seems counterintuitive to you, you’re not alone. I was surprised that something that feels so violating and unnatural can be nourishing to the environment. But it’s important to know that not all wildfires are bad.

Learning this reminded me that nature’s always a bit of a mystery. And that’s part of what makes places like the Enchantments so, well, enchanting.

📸: Sara Gentzler

Want to camp in the Enchantments? Get ready for the next lottery (usually it’s mid-February through early March and it’s totally random, not first-come, first-serve). And read up on the permitting system here, plus this blog has some good tips. If you missed the lottery this year and are set on going this season, 25 percent of permits are reserved for the walk-ins, so you can always try that.

Let’s be respectful and keep areas like this ⬇️ sacred so we can keep competing to enjoy them.

📸: Sara Gentzler
Don’t worry about these goats during a fire. Carly says: “Goats are a fire adapted species and know how to keep themselves safe during wildfires…Most of the goats do hang out in the Core, which is unaffected by the wildfire at this time.” 📸: Sara Gentzler