If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Guides adapt to a new normal of smokier summers

Mountain Madness guide Amber Smith on a smoky peak in the North Cascades.
Photo courtesy Amber Smith.

By Katie Griffith

During an approach to Sahale Peak in summer 2018, Mountain Madness guide Amber Smith and her client enjoyed sunny, clear skies, with great weather conditions in the forecast.

“The next day the direction of the wind changed, and when we got up early in the morning to go for the summit, it was so dark that [we] couldn’t yet tell that it was smoky, but it almost looked like it was snowing,” she said. It wasn’t snow, but ash illuminated by her headlamp. Smith and her client managed the smoke and reached the summit that day, but for guides throughout the region, managing smoky skies is an increasing threat to their success.

Drier, scorching summers in the Pacific Northwest have led to more frequent, serious fire seasons in recent years, with big implications for guiding and the outdoor recreation industry as a whole. For an industry that depends on taking folks outside, the ability to safely be outside during the hottest time of the year has become increasingly variable in the last five years.

This year is no exception, as fires ravaged the West Coast, forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, destroying whole towns, and creating unhealthy to hazardous air quality in much of the west.

The “New Normal”

Jeff Ward, guide and co-owner of North Cascades Mountain Guides (NCMG) in Mazama, has been guiding in the North Cascades since the mid-’90s. He remembers smoky seasons in the past but says now it seems like the norm to have bad fires. “We had a great season this year, with almost no fires, and it seemed so abnormal,” Ward said about the 2019 season.

The 2018 Wildland Fire Season summary from the U.S. Forest Service describes a 10-year trend: While the number of ignitions remained stable, the acreage burned increased. During the 2018 season, 1,340,481 acres were affected by wildfire in Oregon and Washington, compared to less than 250,000 in 2008. Bigger fires, spread over more land, means more smoke in the air. In 2018, our neighbors in British Columbia were hit even harder, with over 3 million acres burned that year. Nearly 800,000 acres have burned in Washington state this year, making it the second worst fire season in state history so far, after 2015.

Guides also agree that it has been difficult to make predictions about the fire season; the potential impact of smoke depends on so many factors and things change year to year. Jason Martin has been guiding in the Pacific Northwest since 2000 and in a leadership position at the American Alpine Institute (AAI) since 2008. He has observed a shift in the season’s timing, saying that in the past the fires showed up in August or September and the rain followed soon after. In recent years, guides saw hazy skies as early as June, with months of hot weather remaining to keep drying out the fuel. Smoke also blows in from hundreds of miles away in British Columbia or other western states, so local fire conditions don’t always determine how much smoke is in the air.

Fire Adaptations

Depending on location, permits and seasonal constraints, companies have adapted to the changing fire season in a variety of ways, with some changing their entire business models. Hoodoo Adventures, on the Canadian side of the Okanagan Valley, changed its refund policy to only allow refunds with at least 21 days of notice, except in cases of serious health risks. CEO Lyndie Hill kept receiving refund requests when the sky out her window was clear. The media was describing the area as the “Smokanagan,” scaring away Hill’s Alberta clientele.

Hill says Hoodoo Adventures won’t run a trip when it’s dangerously smoky, but they make that call by assessing real-time conditions, since air quality can change so quickly when winds shift. In order to manage the unpredictable summer income, Hill restructured her business around the fall and spring, when the weather is often beautiful in the Okanagan.

“We consider summer months our bonus months,” she says, though Hoodoo has historically been busiest during the summer.

Some of the alpine guide companies in northwest Washington have a little more flexibility to adapt to the worsening fire seasons. The AAI and Mountain Madness both hold permits in a variety of locations, so they can usually reroute trips to areas less affected by smoke while still meeting their clients’ goals.

Martin of AAI describes the permitting landscape in Washington as “pretty lenient.” Guides at both companies are empowered to shift their objectives to keep their clients and themselves out of the smoke. Pacific Northwest guides help one another by posting frequent conditions updates on a common email list-serve shared among guides.

Ward of NCMG says his return clients are becoming more aware of the fire season, booking earlier to avoid the smoke, but NCMG does cancel trips if conditions are hazardous.

Still, as Smith found on her Sahale Peak climb, sometimes the smoke is unexpected and guides find themselves having to decide whether to continue climbing in questionable air quality. During her trip to Boston Basin, she and the client made the decision together to climb the peak. The client had attempted Sahale earlier that summer and had to back down due to weather; this time he wanted to summit.

“Other than our long-term lung health, which is my big concern, I didn’t feel that it was unsafe for us to be up there,” Smith said.

Looking to the Future

Guides and company owners are hoping for the best while adapting policies to prepare for the worst. Some would like to see federal agencies and local governments adapt to the fire season alongside them.

“The forest service is underfunded and doesn’t have the resources to manage the fires that are going on,” says Martin of AAI. Once the fires start, the agency directs its energy to managing them, and Martin has struggled to get in touch with the agency for standard permit requests, he said.

Hill of Hoodoo Adventures wants to see more support for local businesses during particularly severe fire seasons. In 2018, she applied for tax relief through a federal disaster relief program in Canada and was denied. Hoodoo managed to scrape by, but she said its closest competitor in Penticton, B.C. went bankrupt after that season.

Outdoor recreation professionals hope for change at an individual level as well, observing a need for a cultural shift toward camping and campfires. Ward, whose company is based in a community affected by seasonal wildfires, feels stressed when he sees any campfires in the area, even when there isn’t an explicit fire ban. Human ignitions are the primary cause of wildfires, with 84 percent of fires in Washington caused by people during the 2018 season.

Wildfire isn’t the only thing making the summer season more challenging for guides. Guides mentioned other climate-change related disruptions from recent years, like having lakeside camping permits canceled due to low lake levels and glacier conditions becoming hazardous early in the season on popular volcano routes.

“Our whole industry is surviving on the climate functioning; we need the wintertime to snow, we need the summertime to not be totally on fire burning down,” Smith says.

Outdoor recreation is a huge industry in Washington state and around the country; it pays the bills for many and provides joy, exercise and leisure opportunities for many more. Guides and industry leaders often have the most intimate knowledge of changing conditions because they deal with them every day. How can they be part of the solution? What responsibility do individual recreationists have to protect the places where they love to play? It’s up to everyone to play their part if we want to keep climbing, skiing, hiking, fishing, and boating in the Pacific Northwest for decades to come. x

Katie Griffith is a climbing coach, guide, and writer. She searches for the lessons that climbing can teach us about personal development, community care, accessibility, and sustainability. Shrinkitandpinkit.wordpress.com.