Where there’s fire, there’s smoke

Where there’s fire, there’s smoke

Conservation Northwest / Aug 21, 2018 / Forestry, Wildfire

Smoke-choked days are likely to become the standard for late summer in the Northwest.

By Mitch Friedman, Founder and Executive Director
Mitch founded Conservation Northwest (then the Greater Ecosystem Alliance) in 1989, and has been at the helm ever since.

Time was that I resisted travel in August and September, considering the Northwest to be the greatest place on Earth these months. Something has changed. If you’re in Seattle, the smoky days are about like being in an R&B night club in the 1980s. If you’re in parts of BC or eastern Washington, it’s like being in a bowl of Cream of Wheat. It’s toxic to our lungs and casts an apocalyptic gloom on one’s mood.

The extent of leadership or even concern from DC was a Trump tweet blaming fires on water being wasted in rivers and a zinger from Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, who blamed them on environmental terrorism. The actual cause is weather.

How do we know weather is to blame? Well, the fires are burning from California to northern British Columbia, from sageland to coastal forest, from industrial plantations to old growth. There are two things this vast smoky geography has in common: hot and dry. You can’t blame that on Smoky Bear, because Canada didn’t share America’s decades of fire suppression obsession. You can’t blame it on too many trees, because grasslands are burning.

Active wildfires in British Columbia. Photo: Government of British Columbia.

Is this unprecedented? No, because it happened last year too. Prior to that, as best I can tell, it’s beyond living memory since Seattle was shrouded in smoke. Well, Bellingham also had it for a few days in 2015.

However, “beyond living memory” doesn’t tell us a whole lot. There were huge fires in the West a century ago, as Timothy Egan chronicled so well in The Big Burn. Prior to the use of aircraft in fire suppression around 1950, the average fire season saw 15 million acres burned in the American West, about 50% more than we’re likely to experience this year. There were some drought years in the sixteenth century that were so bad that there’s a whole cohort of Northwest old growth forests are around 400 plus year old, born of that fire-breathing climate. So fire is not unnatural to our region.

Between our Smoky Bear tools and a coincidental wet/cool weather phase that lasted through the mid 1980s, we’ve been lulled into thinking clear skies are the norm.

What happened after the wet/cool period ended? Remember the Yellowstone fires of 1988? In our North Cascades, the multiple big fires of 1994 might have been the harbinger, and it’s been relentless ever since. Still, there was no smoke in Seattle until last year, something is new.

For us in Washington, this is a year of heavy smoke (mostly from elsewhere) but not yet of heavy fire. Yes, there are a bunch of them, but none of them are all that big. Though of course that could change over the remaining weeks of fire season. The fires have damaged critical ecological values, including how the Snowy Mountain and McLeod fires have burned lynx denning habitat in an ecosystem where two decades of fires have left behind little of that to spare.

Is climate change a factor? Of course it indisputably is! We can’t say what this summer would have been like had the world adopted real climate policies as early as the 1980s, except that it would have been better than it is. Every newspaper has covered continually how our hottest years are our most recent ones, and heat records globally far exceed cold ones. Today I read a piece in National Geographic about some Arctic ground no longer freezing in winter.

Can we log our way out of this? Of course not. There are clear reasons to do careful thinning in some dry forests and tons of prescribed burning. These reasons include climate resilience, ecological benefits to habitat and water, changes in forest patterns can discourage megafires, improved fire suppression tactics using treated areas as anchor points, and social benefits like jobs and logs. But when it’s this hot and dry, the forest is going to burn.

What shall we do? Adopt policies that reduce carbon immediately (you can help by voting for Initiative 1631 this November!), do a lot more prescribed burning, restrict housing in forested areas, foster maintenance of defensible space around existing homes, and get used to some smoke. I’m afraid this is likely how it’s going to be in late summer for the remainder of our lives.

Learn more about our work on fire, forests and communities at www.conservationnw.org/fire.