Days 64 & 65: Wildfires

Wyoming was smoky.  Montana is smoky.

Last night, Gma’s almost-full moon glowed orange-red as it reflected fires burning in and around Glacier National Park.  Half the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed, and all the sites on the west side of the park are inaccessible due to fire-suppression efforts.

Folks (locals and experts alike) are talking about this being a new “August normal.”

All of it is pretty new to me.  Back home, farmers burned fencerows, and the fires sometimes got out of control due to shifting winds, but I had no knowledge of forests catching on fire.  In retrospect, the Smokey the Bear fire prevention campaigns were kind of lost on me.  Forest fires didn’t hit close to home, figuratively or literally.  And I certainly couldn’t imagine anyone willfully starting a fire – or even being negligent enough to start one inadvertently.

When I moved to Portland, my understanding started to shift.  I saw evidence of previous burns on forested hikes and even heard of some hikers’ near-escape from a fire that shifted with the direction of the wind.  When a teenager threw a firecracker into the woods and sparked a giant fire in the Columbia Gorge last summer, Portland filled with smoke (Washington-area fires contributed as well, as smoke wafted into the valley from the north).  Finally Smokey’s message resonated with me.  The reality hung heavy in the air, bringing warnings of unsafe air quality and cancelling outdoor plans.  I can remember a period of time when my head ached from the haze in the air.  It was inescapable, permeating homes and businesses and just hanging heavy in the sky.

This summer, wildfires (megafires) are all over the news.  And I’m personally seeing them, hearing about them, smelling them, and experiencing them more directly and differently than ever before.

I listened to a program the other day in which various fire experts were interviewed, and this is how I would sum up what I learned:

  1. Many wildfires occur naturally, sparked by lightning.
  2. When humans suppress these fires, they disrupt natural cycles.*
  3. Fires are bigger today than ever before in known-history.
  4. More Americans than ever before live in areas prone to fires.*
  5. Humans cause fires too.  And climate change exacerbates them.

I starred the information that was new to me.  I was especially interested in the bit about our “encroaching” on natural wild areas.  We desire to live in beautiful, wooded places (and there are so many of us).  These areas are obviously at greater risk of wildfire, and we’re naturally more concerned with wildfires that threaten homes and other structures, so areas in the WUI (“wooey” – or wildland urban interface – where wild spaces meet human development) are of particular concern, in a way that is relatively new and modern.

It all comes full circle for me.  Wildfires weren’t a reality (or personal concern) for me before I moved to a more “wooey” place.  There are forests in Illinois, of course, but it’s alllllll the trees of Portland and the surrounding areas that called me move there – and the wild places that called me on my journey.  So, naturally, the realities of such places resonate with me in new ways when I occupy them daily.  And I’m newly fascinated by wildfire research, sparked by an employee of the Forest Service I met hiking up Mt. Shasta.  I don’t even know how we started talking about it, but he said “People are so opposed to deforestation, and they’re not giving thought to the effects that has on fire danger.”  Hmmm.  Fodder for thought indeed.


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