Close encounters with a scary fire season

As wildfires have ripped through the West, take stock of what climate change has wrought.

 

Michael Baughman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer in Oregon.


Editor's Note: As of publication, the Chetco Bar Fire has grown to 175,770 acres.

In September 1982, my wife, Hilde, and I learned firsthand about wildfires during a backpacking trip in Northern California. While we were fly-fishing a creek miles from camp, we noticed a cloud of smoke drifting upstream. More smoke, thick smoke, soon followed, and then hot wind, and then we saw the first orange flames. We had no choice but to run for our lives, trees exploding in bursts of flame not far behind us. After two hours we made it safely out of the forest, our white T-shirts splotched with red by the fire retardant dropped from overhead planes. If we hadn’t been in good shape, we might have died. 

Fast-forward to September 2017. The Klamath, Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges converge near the Oregon-California border to create an irreplaceable combination of co-existing ecosystems. In 2000, to protect this unique area, President Bill Clinton established the 86,774-acre Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Then, in 2017, President Barack Obama expanded it by adding 48,000 acres.        

Thanks to Donald Trump’s Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, a recommendation that would scale back the monument’s size is currently under review. Zinke’s proposal comes as no surprise. While serving as a congressman from Montana, he voted for a House resolution that would make it easier for the ownership of public lands to be transferred to the states.

The Chetco Bar Fire, in southwest Oregon, was first reported on July 12 and was caused by lightning.
InciWeb

After 50 years of hiking its trails and cross-country skiing its mountainsides, Hilde and I know the monument very well, and we welcomed its creation and expansion. Whenever the weather allows, after a workout or some yard work, we take a late morning break in lawn chairs near the eastern edge of our southern Oregon property, sipping coffee and talking while we admire the monument’s impressive mountains 15 miles away. 

But not this summer. The view has been obscured by smoke from eight nearby wildfires sparked by July and August lightning strikes, so we’ve been watching the mountains through a grim haze of gray-brown smoke.

Yesterday the smoke was exceptionally thick, the monument’s mountains invisible. A prominent knoll rising above a lake a mile from our home could barely be seen through the acrid haze. The Chetco Bar Fire, over 125,000 acres and growing by the hour, was threatening the coastal town of Brookings. We have close friends living on the North Umpqua River who were now at stage 2 evacuation preparedness. The morning news warned that the fires would likely burn until mid-October. As September began, we read that 81 large fires had burned 1.4 million acres, and at least eight Western states were suffering from dense, smoky air that turned the morning sun red. 

We talked about all of that, and about the contrasting problem of Houston, where we also have friends, and where more rain had fallen in two days than the Rogue Valley gets in two years; and then about the Texas Republicans who voted against federal aid for East Coast victims of Hurricane Sandy, thereby creating an opportunity to confess to their world-class hypocrisy by voting, as they should, in favor of aid for their own state; and finally about how, according to science, as opposed to Chinese hoaxes, summer wildfires will soon become the new normal; the rural West frequently ablaze. Since the day we ran for our lives, Hilde and I have witnessed a steady progression toward this awful outcome.

And then we were saved from absolute depression. We were sitting no more than 10 feet from a birdbath, and behind the birdbath was the wire fence that separates us from our neighbor down the hill. A flock of eight Western bluebirds arrived and perched on the low limb of a nearby oak. The birds studied us briefly, decided we were all right, and fluttered down to the bath together to splash vigorously for several minutes. No sooner had they flown off than two perfectly formed and overlapping V’s of stridently honking Canada geese, 100 birds or more, flew directly over our heads, so low that we could hear their slow, powerful wing-beats. Shortly after the geese disappeared, our neighbors’ horses, two mares and a gelding, came to the fence so we could feed them their daily feast of apples from our tree. 

So birds and animals helped us through a dreary day, and sooner or later, if not in October then in November, the rains will come and the fires will be extinguished and the sky will clear once again.  

But then comes next summer, and all the summers after that, and running away won’t work.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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