No Sun, Just Lighter Sky

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!”

13 thoughts on “No Sun, Just Lighter Sky

  1. That’s not confined to the west. Maine and interior New England are prone to periodic dry summers or droughts, although that’s not a popular conception. Wind and climate patterns set this up. The Great Fire of 1947 (drought years) burned out much of Acadia National Park, half the island, Jackson Lab’s mouse lines (but not their pedigree files), and some of the remaining wealthy and their cottages (ahem). Small fire in the town dump “extinguished”, caught and spread through dry detritus layers. Thirty years (since 1916) of allowing new vistas and woods to establish, and limited undergrowth removed, encouraged the buildup. Fast-forward to 2017 and the 70th anniversary. Local tree-huggers and official employees had focused on retaining the pristine feel and a “return to natural conditions” for decades. Conifer succession was killing off birch and other succession stands. Big storms knocked down a lot of mature trees (not much soil to root in). Standard practice was to cut trunk segments across trails, move them aside, and “clear” the area. The detritus was left to rot slowly in a cold climate, with short growing and active insect seasons. Universal agreement that the Great Fire was a terrible thing, and universal inability to understand that the dry brush and tinder layer was now thicker in many places. As they put out stories of the past and their progress, I thought I heard someone ruling out new pages for the copybook.

  2. Nationwide, according to the Nat’l Interagency Fire Center, this isn’t even horrible for the last ten years. See the year-to-date statistics here:

    By acres and number of big fires, we’re 6 or 7 for the past 10 years. Still, it’s *nationwide*, and they only count big fires: ie > 100 acres in timber, > 300 acres in grassland.

    I haven’t seen the statistics for Oregon, but have heard it’s quite horrible. I also know of three 1-5 acre fires within 20 miles that have been done (most likely set) in the past week. (It’s not PC to note that Antifa has starting fires, but the idiots have been bragging about it on anti-social media. At least until TPTB note it and they get doxxed and pull the postings. Too late. [VBEG] )

    A further complication is the result of the environazis. Back in 2002, a very large (> 200k acres) fire burned in SW Oregon. Salvage logging was scheduled, but the “green” groups took it to court, and kept at it until the salvage value of the lumber dropped to negative figures. So, lots of dead trees in the burn scar. Fast forward to (last?) year (or two years ago; it’s been lively), and a lightning strike started a fire in that same area. Another 200k acres and plenty of homes burnt out. One got the impression from the lawfare that the condition of the forest had nothing to do with it, but spite at “those evil lumber companies” had everything to do with it.

    Air quality in Oregon is actually pretty good this morning. Sorry about what’s coming your way…

    • Ah: 2002 fire was the Biscuit, near Brookings. The followup was the Klondike fire in 2018, with the Taylor Creek more-or-less touching the Klondike.

  3. Back when I was in high school in Idaho in the ’60s, I attended a lecture sponsored by a Fish and Game Department wildlife biologist. He made a statement to the effect that the worst thing that had happened to forest health was “Smokey the Bear” and the attitude that all fires must be suppressed,. This to a group of kids who grew up knowing the “Smokey the Bear” song by heart. He said that logically, only man-caused fires should be fought, and only those to point of saving buildings or that threatened human facilities. Wilderness fire should be allow to burn, and in some cases controlled burns to reduce fuel loads in overgrown areas should be undertaken. Politically this of course was and is heresy.

  4. And the 20th century fires are relatively small potatoes compared to a couple of mid-west conflagrations – like the Peshtigo fire, which I wrote about in a survey of various 19th century mass-casualty events: “a tornado of fire that roared through Wisconsin in 1871 and burned a thriving lumber town on Green Bay. That fire incinerated perhaps 2,000 people. Those who survived took refuge in a river, where they had to keep ducking under water, as the fire burned all around with such intensity that their hair kept catching fire. But that fire happened at the same time as Chicago was burning to the ground, and so a major city in flames grabbed most of the headlines. Twenty-three years later, another huge firestorm swept through another Minnesota lumber-town; Hinckley, where about four hundred saved themselves in a nearby gravel pit and a shallow, muddy lake, while another four hundred suffocated or were burned alive. The heroes of that day were the crews of three trains, who stayed to evacuate residents until their coaches were all but catching fire from the blowtorch flames around them.”

    • I tried to read a book about the Peshtigo fire once. As soon as I saw the first pictures, I had to close the book and quit. I’ve read too much about firestorms to be able to look at those photos without having problems.

      • The Peshtigo Fire did have some remarkable survivor stories, though. And everybody who fled to the shrine of the apparition of Our Lady of Good Help (Champion, WI, then named Robinsonville) survived the fire, including animals. The fire came right up to the property lines and stopped. (Of course, my understanding is that they did try to make firebreaks around the property, since God helps those who help themselves, but the fire hopped firebreaks elsewhere. Chapel, school, convent, and everything else on the property stayed unburnt.)

        But yeah, it was really bad — fire tornado and sand turned into glass bad.

    • My great-grandparents had a farm within a few miles of the south edge of the Hinkley fire. Had the wind switched there would have been little they could have done. I grew up hearing about the Hinkley fire, but didn’t know about the Peshtigo fire until just a few years ago.

  5. Sorry, I’d comment by my sinuses hate the smoke, the world, and me with equal fervor right now.

  6. And sadly, it will only get worse, until we do get a ‘major’ conflagration and multiple people die. The Camp Fire obviously wasn’t the wake up call it should have been (various reports say over 200 died in that, but they stopped counting).

  7. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest rainforest. Under normal conditions it isn’t in danger of burning up. But if you clearcut it first and let the slash (tops, limbs, etc.) lay over the next summer it will burn nicely, and if conditions are right, wind and an extra dry year, it can spread to nearby forests if not contained and with a hot enough start they will burn, although not as spectacularly as other parts of the country. You want to talk about browse for deer and elk? Come back and look at a slash burned clearcut in the Pacific northwest after a couple years, with the moisture they get and the nutrients released by fire it is unbelievable how think, lush and green it is. Also promotes growth of future lumber trees exponitially. . . so of course the practice has been practically banned.

    I grew up and still live in logging communities. Prescribed burns of timber or letting natural burns, burn. Is an anethema that I can’t look at as anything but a huge waste of natural resources. Log the ground first and harvest all the timber for lumber, then you can burn it and create all that nutritious soil, while cleaning up the mess left by logging and not creating more of a mess like prescribed burns of standing timber leave (very seldom will green trees completely burn, leaving fire killed snags that then blow over and leave the ground looking like it is covered with black giant jackstraws). I realize other areas of the country have scattered fire resistant trees with grass and underbrush that will burn quickly clearing the ground and leaving the trees. But in timber country intentionally burning without harvesting the timber for lumber first is a tremendous waste of resources and should be a crime regardless of whether it is done by reckless neglect, antifa and Black Lives Matters protesters try to spread the police and authorities thin, or by government sanction.

    Sorry, rant over.

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