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Know the West

The fires that follow us

A hiker copes with a new anxiety brought by a changed climate.


This story was originally published by The Last Word on Nothing and is republished here with permission.

This year, for our anniversary, my husband and I went backpacking. As we left Seattle, the sky was a clear, bright blue, and all the mountains were out: you could see depth in the Olympic range, and Rainier looked stunning as usual, if a little snow-bare. The hike was blissfully shaded and generously graded, the campsites delightfully deserted, the lake deliciously frigid. We were in bed by 8:30 and set an alarm to wake up at 3 a.m. to catch the Perseids. It was a perfect day.

As we settled back in the tent after the meteor shower, the winds suddenly shifted. The cool night air grew strangely hot and carried the strong scent of smoke. Our tent whipped around in the gusts as pine needles rained down on us. I sat up in my sleeping bag to have a look outside: had a wildfire started somewhere near us? We were, after all, getting our second heat wave of the summer and so much of the western part of the country was already burning. Sensing my panic, my husband suggested we just pack up and head out, and we were back at the car by 7:30 a.m. It turns out there had been two new fires in Seattle that day, but none in the mountains where we’d hiked.

This month, wildfire smoke blows into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area of the Cascade Mountain Range, Washington.

That day, I realized climate change has created a new anxiety for me (as if I needed more anxieties): being trapped in the backcountry during a wildfire. Usually, when I feel anxious about something, I try to make sense of the actual risk involved, and how to mitigate that risk to calm myself down. For instance, after a few unpleasantly close encounters with bears on a previous trip, I developed a bear anxiety, but after some research on bear behavior, brushing up on what to do (or not to do) if a bear appears, and making sure my bear hang game is strong, I feel less worried.

But I have no idea what to do about my fire anxiety. I checked the local fire situation before we left, but with how quickly fires can start and spread, it’s quite possible one could erupt while I’m hiking, especially on multi-day trips. I know that most fires aren’t mega firestorms, but “unprecedented” seems to be the norm now — what can I do if one breaks out where I’m hiking? The only thought my husband and I had in the moment was to get in the freezing lake with our dog, just like 200 hikers in the Sierra did during last year’s Creek Fire. Reading news articles has only made me more anxious; there are so many stories of hikers getting trapped and narrowly surviving, and reveal terrifying details I hadn’t considered, like the fact that synthetic clothing can melt onto your body in high heat.

A couple days after our hike, we set off on a road trip from Seattle to the Colorado Rockies. On the first day, we drove 1,000 miles to Park City, Utah, and our entire drive was clouded with smoke. As we drove through each town, I checked the air quality index, and it was always in the “unhealthy” range — over 150. In some places, visibility was limited to about a quarter mile. When we finally got close to Park City, we learned a wildfire had just broken out in some nearby mountains that afternoon, and was growing quickly. The highway we’d planned to take had temporarily closed as fire crews worked and residents evacuated.

It is the time of year my climate grief reaches its peak as new records are broken again and again.

I can’t shake this feeling that the fires and their smoke are following me. Really, they are following all of us. If we’re lucky, it just filters the sun’s light into a disconcerting coral color; if we’re not, we lose our homes, our towns, our loved ones. Summer was once my favorite season. Now, it is the time of year my climate grief reaches its peak as new records are broken again and again. Each time I learn about some awful moment in history, I wonder how people just continued living their lives amidst the chaos, and I realize I am doing that right now.

Every day I sit down at my computer and I type emails and look at memes and pet my dog and make dinner. Sometimes I get angry reading the news and I talk about climate change with my friends. I sort the garbage and compost and recycling and wonder if it makes any difference. I vote for people who advocate for more climate friendly policies and more often than not, they let me down. What else is there to do?

Jane C. Hu is an independent journalist who writes about science, technology and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle.  

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