Pinning the blame on nature’s occasional fury

The drive between Portland and Cannon Beach in northwest Oregon reminds us that, when nature unleashes its fury, there is nothing humans can do to prevent the resulting damage.

That became painfully clear last December when heavy snows were followed by rapidly warming temperatures and torrential rains that dumped 10 to 18 inches of rain on western Washington and Oregon.

If that weren’t enough, gale force winds clocked between 80 and 100 mph crippled many rural coastal communities by flooding homes, farms and businesses; knocking out power; and uprooting huge old growth trees leaving behind bomb-like craters.

In Washington, the damage was particularly heavy along the Chehalis River where floodwaters closed Interstate 5 for nearly a week in the Centralia-Chehalis area and isolated Aberdeen and Hoquiam.

After four long days, the storms blew out, and thousands of people were left homeless, farmers lost dairy herds, and hundreds were without work.

In the aftermath, some activists tried to blame the damage on logging. But massive storms like these happen occasionally in our part of the world.

They are natural phenomena.

For example, on Columbus Day in 1962, an anemometer at Oregon’s Cape Blanco clocked winds at 179 mph before losing its cups.

Olympia measured winds at 88 mph. The storm decked tens of thousands of trees, enough wood — 5 billion board feet — to build 690,000 homes.

The forest industry launched a massive salvage operation to help workers and their families, timber landowners, and communities recover.

More than 80 years before the Columbus Day storm, on January 9, 1880, a powerful gale rolled in from the Pacific Ocean wiping out many coastal Oregon communities and ravaging most of the Willamette Valley. Newspaper accounts are sketchy, but the damage was the result of an act of nature, not humans.

The question is, what reasonable things can we do to mitigate damages when the next gale comes off the Pacific, and how can we salvage the trees scattered across the landscape like a child’s game of pickup sticks?

Driving along the coastal highways, broken and downed trees from last December’s storm are everywhere, and the lost timber could exceed the losses from the 1962 storm.

Will the downed timber be cleared and replanted or left to rot and fuel future forest fires?

Just as high winds and rain ravage forests, large wildfires have cleared the land in the past. For example, in northwest Oregon, strong dry winds ignited the mammoth Tillamook Burn in 1933 (355,000 acres) and southwestern Washington’s Yacolt Fire in 1902 engulfed nearly 240,000 acres, killing 38 people in its two-day rampage around Mount St. Helens.

The point is, human activity is inconsequential compared to high winds, flood waters, earthquakes and wildfires.

These storms will happen again, and when disaster strikes, we need to make the best of it, salvage what we can and restore things as quickly as possible.

That’s what schoolchildren did after the Tillamook fire. They volunteered to replant the charred landscape on weekends.

After Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980 leveling much of Weyerhaeuser’s forests around the volcano, the company launched one of the world’s largest salvage and tree planting operations.

Today, the company’s tree farm is providing habitat for wildlife and fish while producing lumber for our homes, boughs for our Christmas wreaths, chips for the paper you’re reading, and fuel for new biomass power plants.

These are examples of people putting American ingenuity to work making the best of a tragedy.

Nature has left us clear evidence of her powerful fury. The scenic scone-shaped top of Mount St. Helens and serene Spirit Lake are gone.

They will never be the same. Last December’s storms snapped in half the world’s largest Sitka spruce, known as the Klootchy Creek Giant, located just outside of Seaside, Oregon.

After 700 years of surviving wind, fire and high water, its broken trunk stands as a reminder of nature’s cruel blow.

We have to remember that nature is not static.

It is constantly changing, incredibly powerful, and can cause devastating damage, no matter what we do.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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