Linking catastrophic wildfires to climate change

Washington’s long summer of fire and smoke

On Spokane’s west side, the Houston Fire was growing fast. If a wind were to come up and whip flames across a field of weeds, the gate that keeps the world at bay at the entrance to Erika and Andrea Zaman’s lane would do no good. Just in time, Andrea blasted back from the airport, scooped up her sitter and the two kids. The sitter’s mom took them in while firefighters worked hard to turn the blaze away.

This past summer was tense. I live just four miles from what became known as the Houston Fire, and I speculated that its flames might gallop along our street, leaving me little to do but climb a ladder to the roof with a garden hose, wet down the house and hope for the best.

Back in 1902, a wildfire near Yacolt, Washington, ravaged 370 square miles. That fire reigned as the largest in state history until 2014, when the Carlton Complex Fire assailed Brewster and Pateros in the north-central part of the state. At 391 square miles, the Carlton out-burned the Yacolt Fire, destroying 353 homes and causing $100 million in damage.

This year, in yet another symptom of the impacts of climate change, the Okanogan Complex of fires surpassed them both by growing to 400 square miles. Some climate skeptics — the deniers — claim that warming and turmoil are natural. They are willing to finger anything else — oceanic oscillations, volcanic eruptions, even sunspots — as probable triggers. They cite anything outside of human-brewed pollution as a cause. Those who deny we are experiencing anthropogenic climate change want to damn all contradictory opinions, even the newest research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, every year wildfires in the West start earlier, burn hotter, grow in acreage and last longer. Spent fuels heat the planet, drive regional droughts and cause vaster fires to destroy more trees. The causes are reciprocal. Pollution begets wildfires, which in turn beget more pollution. And yet, ironically, global forests are ideal carbon sinks for renegade carbon. I like to call them absorption organs. Instead of doing their job of “sinking” or absorbing CO2, though, our forests are turning rapidly into ash.

Climate disruption is a kind of ice age in reverse. As the planet warms and polar ice caps melt at hastening rates, weird weather increasingly becomes the norm.

The anthropogenic argument on climate change holds that petrochemicals generate planetary grief — that carbon pollution spreads misery beyond the rural-urban interface where wildfires do most damage. We mine oil and gas under the planet’s surface, we eradicate the cleansing vegetation that surrounds the mines, we refine crude to make ever more-flammable stuff in districts known as cancer alleys, we contaminate the environment in unsustainable ways when we combust that stuff. We are the “weather-makers,” the “future eaters,” in the fine phrases of writer and scientist Tim Flannery.

Aware Americans would like to curtail carbon generation in every way. They would put the brakes on the coal being transported by trains and burnt to make electricity, slow the highly combustible oil being pumped from Midwest fields, limit the homes popping up so far from urban cores and thereby necessitating long commutes, create incentives for carmakers to manufacture models that exceed miles-per-gallon averages in the low 20s.

For weeks on end this summer, assailed by wildfire smoke, we residents of the inland Northwest kept hoping for rain. When at last a summer shower arrived, raindrops atomized the dust and made every parched thing pungent. People fairly spun with bliss; it had been so long, they did not know what they’d been missing.

In the shadow of the Houston Fire, residents returned home the same day. They were luckier than many people have been these last two years. No houses or lives were lost. Andrea, Erika and their children breathed relief, thanked the brave firefighters, kept the windows closed and ran the AC.

A week later, I biked the road that had split the 60-acre burn site. The scent of ash and chemicals tainted the air. One barn had been leveled, another scorched. Bulldozers had punched roads through the forest to give the firefighters access, and barbed wire slumped where posts once held it. On both sides of rural Grove Road, blackened trees and grasslands spread as far as the eye could see, and on the asphalt and the pastures lay red stains from the fire repellant — battle scars from a battle we’ve yet to acknowledge we’re fighting.

Paul Lindholdt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives and bikes in Spokane, Washington, and is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University. His latest book is Explorations in Ecocriticism.


7 thoughts on “Linking catastrophic wildfires to climate change

  1. Good article, Jim. There are so many points from this article to be explored further, such as the concept of “rural-urban interface” meaning the influx of humans into even more once-wild areas, and the impact & suffering these “new fires” are causing to nonhumans: mention of the suffering of The Voiceless: those beings who slither, crawl, fly, run off to slowly die from smoke inhalation, or who are trapped by the infernos–and burn. The cows that are burned to death in these forests, helpless, slow moving, should not be there. No domesticates should be in these places anymore–not humans nor their livestock. The wild animals have enough to deal with these days, without having to run for their lives through human developments, whether houses or ranches. Humans have created this horrendous problem. Now, China has dropped its “1 child policy”–not that this was even working very well, with the already huge population growth happening.
    Humans are not capable, now, of doing anything that is crucial to save the remaining wild systems of this planet. We cannot even “solve” the horrendous “refugee problem” in Europe. Hundreds of millions of humans have been starving for decades. The enormity of the problem is just too much. Now, we catapult the planet even further into the abyss, to 8 Billion humans and beyond.

  2. I also forgot to mention the toxic chemicals dropped on these fires, which affect remaining plant and animal life–poisoning the soils and air. Then, add the industrial/military equipment & road building to “fight” these fires–leaving an apocalyptic scene of destruction. And, because of increasing temperatures (overall) in the west, many of these large-tree forests will not grow back. Imagine what this new climate scenario will do to the remaining temperate coastal rain forests.

    • And, of course, the “new solution” is the old “destroying the forest to save it,” ideology, with help from the logging industry, more than happy to help–with more “forest management”–meaning more thinning, and “salvage logging.” These forests are looking more like industrial wastelands.
      When we were hiking in the Columbia Gorge area, up on the PC trail, we went through some wonderful big trees, a lush forest, birds singing, etc. As we hiked on up, I saw a clearing above, and wondered just what we would see: As we came over the ridge, we saw the devastation, of at least three mountains ahead of us, totally clear cut. All that remained were jagged, torn, ripped up stumps, no birds singing, no signs of forest life. Another couple was below us in this “bombed out” scene, and they too, stood in numbed amazement at the sheer size of this destruction. As they turned back down, we also decided to do the same, knowing it would be a long hike over this abomination to the mountain lake we had hoped to see. This was only a few years ago. I often think of it. This hike was listed as a “wonderful day hike, to a pristine mountain lake.” Ummm…

  3. At least you had some rain. The Rough Fire, about 10 miles from where I live, burned approximately the same acreage, ran wild for more than 3 weeks, and covered hundreds of square miles with acrid smoke and particles. But unlike the northwest, we still await any significant rains. The global deniers should have to live in the smoke every day.

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