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Andrew Stenbeck has been fighting wildfires in the Pacific Northwest for 31 years, and his job just keeps getting harder. During what has become a much longer fire season, the blazes have become bigger, more frequent and harder to put out, he says.
“Through the ’90s, a big fire was 400 or 500 acres; it was a big deal if structures were threatened,” Stenbeck, a forester with Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources, told Yahoo News. “Nowadays, a fire is just starting to get big when it’s over 1,000 acres. Every year in the Pacific Northwest we’ve got a fire, it seems like, that’s over 100,000 acres. These days, it’s not uncommon for a fire to go 10 or 12 weeks.”
Stenbeck, who is stationed in Deer Park, Wash., in the northeastern part of the state, knows the primary reason for these changes is global warming. “[People] ask me, in my profession, do I believe it’s climate change,” he said, adding, “I think it’s more accepted these days. I tell them, ‘You guys can argue all you want about the reasons why, but I can tell you the climate has changed. It’s gotten hotter, the seasons are drier.’”
Deer Park is 20 miles north of Spokane, a fast-growing city of around 220,000 residents. Go another 50 miles up U.S. Route 395 and you get to Colville, a town of about 5,000 — the largest in sparsely populated Stevens County — where my wife grew up. Another 45 minutes further north, just 8 miles from the Canadian border, is the unincorporated community of Orient, population 82, where her parents retired.
The area is beautiful, with steep mountains, stark rocky outcroppings and tall pine trees. If it were near a major city, it would certainly be a major tourist attraction. Instead, it’s blissfully empty. In 2020, I didn’t go to visit my in-laws because of the pandemic, and I excitedly looked forward to a more than three-week stay this past summer to make up for lost time.
But climate change had other plans. The whole Pacific Northwest had a record heat wave in June, with daily high temperatures of over 100 degrees for the better part of a week. Combined with an ongoing drought, the wildfire season came unusually early.
Although wildfires have become more prevalent in recent years, they usually aren’t bad enough to blanket eastern Washington with smoke until at least mid-August. This year, by the time my wife arrived in mid-July, many days were so hazy that the sky was gray on even cloud-free days. When I landed in Spokane on July 24, you could taste and smell the smoke. Behind its veil, the sun appeared to be a dark, burnt orange.
“We used to have really beautiful summers here,” my mother-in-law said. “I don’t remember wildfire smoke being as much of an issue as it is now — nothing like lately, especially this past summer, which was the worst I can remember. It’s kind of a new thing, in the last few years, that it’s been this bad. It started so much earlier this year.”
Stenbeck agrees. “It was a really big deal if you had some smoky days 15, 20 years ago,” he said. “Now, it’s just become common that one in three years, or two out of three years, or two out of four years ... you end up with smoke for weeks.”
According to state data, wildfires have become significantly more widespread over the last decade. “In Washington state, we’ve seen, basically since 2014, an increasing number of catastrophic fires,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz told Yahoo News. “This year, 659,000 acres burned. We were fighting fires from July 1 straight into September. We had between 11 to 17 fires on the landscape on any given day. It was the most we’ve ever had, around 1,800 fires in total, this year.”
There were actually more acres burned in Washington — over 813,000 — last year. This year saw more fires but more success at controlling them, thanks to increasing state and federal investment in firefighting.
Some of those fires were just a few miles away from my in-laws. Decades ago, they bought riverfront property and gradually built a retirement retreat, a ranch house with wood siding and wide windows and porches to capitalize on the views of the river and the mountains beyond. They finished construction and moved in in 2013. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place, where the troubles of humankind can seem so far away that it might even be possible to forget about them.
But not this summer, when the smoke was so intense that you couldn’t even see the mountains during the day or the stars at night. We frequently drove past billowing smoke plumes from nearby fires, as firefighting crews raced by. When we washed our cars, they were instantly covered in tiny specks of ash.
Twice in recent years, a state trooper informed residents in the area that they’ve reached a “Level II” evacuation warning, meaning there is a “high probability of a need to evacuate” due to nearby wildfire. One level higher is a mandatory evacuation order. When this happened in 2015, my in-laws had a road trip already planned, so they took their family photos with them, in case their house caught fire in their absence.
One of the most vexing things about wildfire smoke is its unpredictability. Not only do you not know when exactly a fire will start or stop, but wind patterns can cause smoke to travel thousands of miles in one direction, while leaving closer areas relatively unscathed, and then it can suddenly change course.
Much of the smoke this year came from Canada, Oregon and even California, where more than 2 million acres have burned this summer. We had hoped to go to Banff, British Columbia, but it too was engulfed in smoke, so we drove 10 hours to Washington’s coast, just to get a literal breath of fresh air.
My mother-in-law’s hobbies include hiking and gardening, and the smoke interferes with both. “I don’t think it’s good for you to walk when you’re breathing that in all the time,” she said.
The air pollution is definitely reaching harmful levels in eastern Washington. Every day that we were in Orient I would check the air quality index, a measure of particulate pollution. Typically it ranged from 100 to 200, and sometimes even higher, meaning it was “poor,” “very poor” or “hazardous.”
A study published last month in the Lancet found that short-term exposure to particulates from wildfires causes 33,500 deaths worldwide every year. Long-term exposure to forest fire smoke can cause chronic lung and heart disease.
For a comparison, I would check the air in Beijing, the notoriously polluted Chinese capital city of nearly 22 million, which is the only place I had ever seen and smelled pollution like this before. This summer the air was consistently cleaner in Beijing, sometimes as much as seven times less polluted.
“It just makes it unpleasant to even be outside,” my mother-in-law said. “It makes it gloomy, when you don’t see the sun for days on end.” When we did go outside, my right eye would sometimes get red and swollen and feel like it was burning — an effect of the smoke.
And yet, my family are — so far, knock on wood — the lucky ones. For one thing, their house is still standing. Last year, in the 18 biggest wildfires the Washington state government fought, 188 homes were destroyed and even more were damaged. This August, eight homes burned to the ground in my in-laws’ own county. In California, the effects were far worse, with thousands left homeless.
“It was a big deal if a house or a couple houses got burnt up when I started fighting fire,” Stenbeck said. “And now, it seems like we lose lots of houses every summer.”
Thankfully, no one in my wife’s family was among the hundreds of people in the Northwest who died from the effects of this summer’s heat wave.
Compared to these kinds of consequences, having your summer vacation ruined by smoke seems like a minor inconvenience. But the extreme heat, more frequent fires and widespread smoke have become so prevalent that they have affected everyone in the area and driven home the reality of climate change.
Physically and spiritually much closer to Idaho than to Seattle, eastern Washington is politically conservative. Even so, no one I’ve spoken to from there has denied that heat, drought and wildfires have become more extreme in recent years. And most are ready to identify climate change, caused by human activity, as the main culprit because warmer temperatures increase evaporation and dry out vegetation.
“We know why we’re seeing more extreme wildfires: hotter, drier conditions based on a rapidly changing climate,” Franz said. “This year we had record-setting heat, the so-called heat dome. In some places, our landscape was so dry that the moisture content on the ground was 2 to 3 percent. Paper, which we know burns very rapidly, is around 5 percent.
“The land gets so dry, all it takes is a spark, whether it’s human-caused or lightning,” she continued. “There’s so much fuel on the ground, dead or dying trees, dry grass, which we call ‘grassoline’ because it dries so quickly.”
My father-in-law, a retired logger, pointed out that climate change isn’t the only cause of worsening wildfires. “Some of the fire problems are caused by the government because they put restrictions on logging,” he said. “They wanted to stop old-growth logging. They didn’t go in and thin it or clean it, they just shut it off.”
Normally, a forest’s growth is managed through fires. But as more homes are built in the woods, the government tends to become more aggressive about quickly putting out forest fires in order to protect them. So some forests have become overgrown with dead or dying wood, which is particularly flammable.
President Biden acknowledged as much recently. In his Sept. 13 speech in California responding to this summer’s wildfires, he said, “We know that decades of forest management decisions have created hazardous conditions across the Western forests, but we can’t ignore the reality that these ... wildfires are being supercharged by climate change.”
Franz and Stenbeck agree that a lack of clearing out dead trees and bushes has contributed to the problem. States including Washington and California are now increasing their efforts to thin out the brush to limit the spread of future wildfires.
Still, experts say that global warming, caused by humans filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, is the main driver of worsening wildfires. Biden has called recent climate-related disasters a “blinking code red” for humanity. In eastern Washington, that code red is burning brightly, and everyone can feel its effects.
With bigger, longer-lasting fires, Stenbeck’s stressful, busy season that used to end in September now stretches well into autumn. “The first half of my career, when fire season would get done ... you’re a little bit on pins and needles, ’cause you just worked a lot of hours and a lot of days in a row with not many days off over the last couple months,” Stenbeck said. “But now that the season’s gotten longer, some years I don’t know how to describe it, other than you just don’t feel right until November. It takes a while to readjust back to the normal rhythm of life.”
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