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caption: Ignacio and Araceli Gildo stand outside the burned remains of their home in Bridgeport, WA. 
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Ignacio and Araceli Gildo stand outside the burned remains of their home in Bridgeport, WA.
Credit: Courtesy of Ashley Ahearn

'Scorched earth, as far as the eye can see.' Washington wildfires devastate human and animal communities

Since Labor Day, more than 600,000 acres have burned across Washington State. Wildfires have burned an area more than 10 times the size of Seattle.

In the city of Bridgeport, in North Central Washington, the wildfires wiped out homes and structures. It's also threatening a key species there.

Ashley Ahearn is a freelance journalist and the host of the new podcast Grouse.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You visited Bridgeport recently. What was it like on the ground there?

As you said, 600,000 acres have burned, and more than 300,000 have burned so far in the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires that are burning in an area kind of from Omak down toward the Columbia. Bridgeport was right in the mix there.

I drove to Bridgeport from the Methow Valley, where I live. It was just like following smoke down to the Columbia River, and looking at these scorched hillsides, twisted and still-smoking power lines, power poles along the road, guardrails, just warped. Salvador Dali-looking, metal roofing on houses, torched farm houses, multi generation ranches and farms along the roads that are just gone, just obliterated, and sagebrush skeletons kind of sticking up out of the dirt.

It was really stark. It's striking how many hundreds of thousands of acres are burned now, more than the Carlton complex, which many people in this part of the world remember from 2014, which was the largest in Washington state history until this year. So, this is a big marker.

I went down to Bridgeport. The fire burned right to the edge of town. I was walking around some burned out areas and noticed a trailer park across the street. There were people there cleaning up the debris from their burned out home.

I started talking to Elizabeth Gildo. Her family was there. Her parents Ignacio and Araceli have been in the U.S. for almost 20 years now. They came from Jalisco, Mexico. Her father works for the local fruit industry as a picker of cherries and apples. They saved up for years to buy this home. They had only owned it for one year, and it burned. This is Elizabeth:

“They've always wanted the best for us, you know, and their family. Coming here was like, trying to get like the American dream, you know, is what it means for them, trying to get better, you know, and they worked here so hard. And when they finally were able to afford a house, it just burns down.”

So they've started a GoFundMe, Elizabeth Gildo and her family have. They're starting from nothing, and they don't have insurance. It was just one more reminder of the human toll of this, of this tragedy.

There's a bird now that's in a lot of trouble. What's happening with that?

Right around the Bridgeport area is one of the last strongholds of sage grouse in Washington State. This is not listed on the federal endangered species list, but there are fewer than 1,000 of them left in Washington, and several of their biggest leks, or mating sites, is not far from Bridgeport. There's a scientist there named Michael Schroeder, who works for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. He's been studying these birds for more than 30 years.

We visited an area that he had actually taken me to earlier, for some of the recording I've been doing for this podcast. It's one of the biggest surviving leks, and we walk up to this hill. It's just a small hill, but it's high enough that it lets you see for miles all around, just open sagebrush country that the birds need to thrive and survive.

We walked up to this hillside together and looked around and it was just scorched earth as far as the eye could see, just black and no sagebrush, nothing. This is Michael Schroeder observing it.

“This was the largest lek in the county, and it's right in the middle of oblivion, or Mordor, as somebody referred to it, from the Lord of the Rings. If it was just this, but it isn't just this. It's like, you go over to that hill and it looks the same. You go over there. It looks the same. There's no way.”

It might sound from his voice, the way it's breaking there, that he's laughing, but his eyes were red and watering at that point in the conversation, and it was not from the smoke. The main concern is, wild animals will find refuge elsewhere, right? They'll move into other areas, and find new habitat to hang on.

Grouse, they don't move very far in their lifetimes. There's no nearby habitat for them to go to. The size of this fire is just mind-boggling. The burn area is just mind-boggling. I don't often cry with the people that I interview. That, that was one of those moments.

Why did you decide to do this podcast on the grouse?

Well, frankly, because they are awesome. These birds do these ornate mating displays where they puff up their chest, and they make this incredible bubbling noise. They’re becoming increasingly rare across the west.

There used to be millions of these birds, and they've just been in steady decline, for a lot of different reasons. I wanted to dive into what's going on with this bird, and what it tells us about ourselves, actually, because this bird is a symbol of the American West, and our history.

There are so many people working to try to keep them around, who have different ideas about what's to be done to save this bird. As I spent a couple years now in sagebrush country, I'm realizing that the sage grouse is a symbol of the divisions between urban and rural in this country. I couldn't make the case to you that this bird is an economic driver, or if we lose it, we're going to be out millions, or what have you.

I can make the case, though, that it is a symbol of us as Westerners, and as Americans. Taking the time to explore over eight episodes in this podcast, all of the different facets of this conservation question, this thorny conservation question, has been something I've been working on for the past year and I'm really excited to release the podcast next week.

What else have you learned about the situation that you want us to know?

I think the big variable, or thing that connects to our current status with the Covid virus, is that there are more people coming out and recreating in places like the Methow Valley, like Eastern Washington, and it's come with a toll. These fires were started by people. The Cold Springs fire and the Pearl Hill fire, there's evidence that it was accidental, which is more people over the Labor Day weekend on the landscape.

I get the feelings of being trapped in the city, and being trapped in our lives right now, with this virus and everything that's going on. But for folks out here, it really does represent a big threat when more and more people are recreating. And, it is so, so dry out here. We haven't had rain in so long. Just having all these people on the landscape is kind of the big variable.

The Department of Natural Resources actually just announced that they're closing their lands east of the Cascades for at least a week, and it's hunting season. A lot of people out here need to get out and hunt, want to get out and hunt, and many from the west side as well. So, this represents a real cost, and an impact for people.

But, I think on the ground out here it feels like something that, a lot of folks, may make them feel safer, or more secure, or help prevent other fires from getting started.

Ashley Ahearn's podcast, Grouse, launches on Tuesday. It was produced in partnership with BirdNote.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.