The Texas Panhandle and surrounding areas have not had sunrises recently. The sky gets sort of pink, and then cream, and that’s it. There’s too much of California and Oregon between us and the sky to be able to see sun, clouds, or much of the stars. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Two years ago, we actually got so many fine particulates from Colorado, plus California, that we had air-quality alerts for people with breathing problems.
Is this the worst fire year in US history? No. That honor is still in the 1930s, when a lot more of the US had fires – forest and grass both. Is it the worst in recorded history (all 160 years of it) for the West Coast? Yes. It’s not climate change, but a pyrophillic environment in southern and central CA combined with very bad forest management policies in all of the western states, along with seasonal drought and a neutral to La Niña pattern that produced a trifecta of trouble.
The Spanish observed the natives of California lighting fires to clear scrub, encourage fresh growth, and get rid of pests. Most American Indian groups did that, which was why so many Europeans boggled at the lack of underbrush and hazards in forests all over the continent. After ten thousand years of experimentation, give or take, the different groups had sorted out what worked, what didn’t and when to run like mad. Because things did get out of control, fires went the wrong way, camp-fires turned into camp-destroyers . . . Fire is not your friend. A tool, but not your friend.
I’ve mentioned many times about different environments ranging from fire-adapted to fire-needing. One thing fires do is they remove dead and dying materials (duff, limbs, logs, standing dead wood) before the amounts reach the point of choking out other plants and younger trees. Frequent, cooler burns are good for keeping the forest floors clear of obstructions, and encourage the growth of browse for deer, elk, and other things. Not every forest environment in the US or Canada burns, and the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest probably wouldn’t burn even if you tried really hard. They’re just too wet, and are adapted to that wet. But occasional, cool fires are part of the system in most of the rest of North America.
What we are seeing now is what happens when people think “pristine” existed. Some people sincerely believe that the forests before Europeans arrived were forests untouched by the hand of man, and should return to that condition. Oh, and because of Bambi (the film, most certainly not the novel), fires are bad. Guess what? When you don’t allow fires to get going, but you also don’t allow careful thinning and removal of dead and sick trees, once a fire does start, it turns into what we see today. Crown fires that generate their own weather, hot fires that glaze the top of the soil and take out dang near everything, and towns that go up in smoke.
That’s not climate change. That’s seasonal drought (called California’s Mediterranian climate), a huge fuel load, and excessively Romantic ideas about what forests “should” look like. Now a lot of people are suffering because of that. Blame PG&E for old equipment, blame the state of CA for not allowing PG&E to keep the power-line rights-of-way clear, blame the US government for misguided fuel management policies, but don’t blame the internal combustion engine or power plants.
This is horrible for the people in the west. Even those who did everything right to protect their property are getting burned out because of the scale of the debacle and the fires. I admire the men and women trying to contain the fires and protect people and property, and I hope we don’t have any more fatalities or serious injuries. I’m very, very sorry for the folks who lost everything, even though they did what they were told was the best thing to do.
Fire and water will win. Water will erode, fire will consume. They can be managed, used with care, so long as we mere humans remember that the environment’s going to have the last word. Mismanage things, ignore history and science, and we get bitten and bitten hard. Rudyard Kipling was terribly right:
“As surely as water will wet us/ as surely as fire will burn/
The Gods of the Copybook Headings/ with terror and slaughter return!”