2017 was the Year of Fire and Ice. What’s next?

Wildfires on the PCT

While following several thru-hiker’s social media accounts this year, it was hard not to notice how the trail was disturbed by wildfires (and snow cups). The smokey conditions in Oregon and Washington this year seemed to interrupt everyone’s hike: either through trail closures or through poor air quality. So much so that the class of 2017 has been nicknamed the year of Fire and Ice. Myself, along with many other PCT hopefuls, are afraid of how the wildfires from this season will affect our hike next summer. We have no way of knowing, but will next year be another record breaking fire season?

The PCTA announced today, (11/16/17), that they have reopened a two mile stretch of trail that was victim to the Mountain Fire in 2013! Wildfires are incredibly destructive to a trail, so it can take months, even years of hard trail maintenance to reopen several miles of trails. All that remains closed from the 25 mile  Mountain Fire closure is an 8 – 9 mile section. Of the other eleven trail closures, eight are from 2017 wildfires. The twelve closures total around 125 closed miles of trail on the PCT. Most of these closures are likely to carry over to next summer. The only section the PCTA is confident about reopening early next summer is in the Crater Lake area. You can find a full list of closure information here.

The Eagle Creek Fire

The Eagle Creek Fire seen from my plane coming back from the Canadian Rockies in mid-September.

This wildfire broke hearts across the country. It’s easy to fall in love with the Gorge, especially because of how accessible it is: 45 minutes from the PDX airport! The waterfalls and mossy trails impress everyone who stops by for a visit.

I wanted to see how the Gorge had been affected by the Eagle Creek fire. I decided to go to Cascade Locks, the town that hosts the annual Pacific Crest Trail Days festival. This year, the whole town was evacuated in September following the height of the wildfire. There was overwhelming support for firefighters everywhere you looked. Every business had at least one gigantic banner outside their establishment thanking them for their efforts. It was hard to talk to locals without them mentioning how grateful they were. There was a great sense of community there.

The Gorge Post-Fire

Although this wildfire isn’t technically put out yet, it has been 50% contained and is estimated to be over by November 30th. It has done its worst to the Columbia River Gorge. One of the most notable differences post-fire are the closed exits on I-84. The scenic drive is covered in orange cones blocking several damaged roads off the interstate. While driving, you can see small clear cut areas on overpasses and shoulders, along with some burnt tree stumps. Looking up, some of the ridges are bare. Multnomah Falls looks less lush than it did when I first saw it two years ago. Some sections of woods surrounding the waterfall are scorched.

Regardless of the fire damage, the gorge is still thriving. The residents have proven their resilience. Many of the trails in the Eagle Creek area are closed, but there are still several great trails that are open and listed here. It wasn’t fantastic weather when I visited, so I went on a very short hike to Panther Falls in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. There were no traces of a wildfire there, which was comforting. The destruction of the fire, although cruel, did not take the entire gorge away.

Snow on the PCT

Snow levels this year were incredible. A 200% snow pack discouraged many thru-hikers to cross the Sierra. They chose instead to hitch around the mountains, and possibly flip back down when more of the snow had melted in the end of the summer. Of the hikers that did face the snow, two lost their lives. A high snowpack can be trip-ending, even life-ending. When backpacking in the mountains, more snow equates to more danger. River crossings become much more difficult, nights are colder, and losing the trail and getting lost becomes much more likely. The High Sierra’s are known as possibly the most hyped and highlighted part of the Pacific Crest Trail, so missing it because of unsafe conditions would obviously be a real bummer.

Predictions for 2018 Snowpack in the High Sierras

The Almanac Weather Summary for South Lake Tahoe (Nov. 2017 – Oct. 2018), which is traditionally 80% accurate, predicted the following:

“Mountain snows will be above normal, with the stormiest periods in early to mid-November and early and late January. April and May will be slightly drier than normal. Temperatures will be below normal near the coast and above normal inland. Summer will be cooler than normal, with near-normal rainfall. The hottest periods will be from late May into early June and in mid-June and mid-July.”

Meanwhile, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center released their U.S. Winter Outlook. It does not mention seasonal snowfall accumulations because they believe they are unreliable. However, they did discuss that a La Nina winter climate pattern has arrived across the country and is likely to stay this winter, and that, like last year, it is supposed to be fairly weak. They define La Nina as “a natural ocean-atmospheric phenomenon marked by cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean near the equator.”

Does La Nina effect Snow Fall in the Sierra Nevada?

Typical La Nina patterns during the winter include above-average precipitation and colder-than-average temperatures in the northern US. Meanwhile, the South has below-normal precipitation and drier conditions. So where does the Sierra Nevada fall within that information? Meteorologist Joel Gratz wrote an article about how La Nina effects snow fall in southwestern mountain ranges:

“While there’s also a rather strong indication that La Niña years bring lower than average snowfall to the south, the hardest forecast to make is for areas that aren’t north or south but right in the middle, like Tahoe, Utah and Colorado. Many La Niña years treat these areas favorably with above average snow, but it’s not a sure bet. And some La Niñas can persist for two winters in a row, and often the second winter does not bring as much snow to this middle area as the first.”

Gratz wrote that snowpack can be a wildcard in southwestern mountains during a year with La Nina conditions. All we can do is hope that he is correct and that because this is the second winter of La Nina conditions in a row, we will have less snow to the Sierra Nevada than in 2017.

The Trail will be Awesome, No Matter What

We obviously have no power over the elements. If its another high snow year, so be it. Preparation is key to staying safe, and that is the most important part of a high snow year, and/or when the trail is on fire. We can hope for the best conditions, but we can’t do much else. It will rain, burn, or snow however much it wants. The trail changes every year. Skipping the Sierra’s because you feel unsafe isn’t a big deal. The hike will be epic, whatever the conditions. Enjoy it!

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