As Hurricane Irma was charging across the Caribbean, 3,500 miles to the Northwest the Columbia River Gorge, one of the continent’s natural marvels, had exploded into flames. The Gorge, a National Scenic Area largely under the management of the U.S. Forest Service, is a 4,000-foot deep chasm in the Cascade Mountains through which the Columbia River forges toward the Pacific. The western half of the Gorge is temperate rainforest, dominated by 300-year-old Douglas-fir and western hemlock trees.
The fire had started on September 2. It was a suffocatingly hot day in a record run of hot, dry days. Northwest Oregon hadn’t seen measurable rain since the first of June. The forest floor was crisp, arid and flammable. A group of teens had ventured into Eagle Creek Canyon seeking refuge under its tall trees, emerald pools and waterfalls. Goofing around, one of them shouted, “Hey, watch this.” Then he lit a pack of fire-crackers and tossed it down to the canyon floor, where it detonated like a bomblet. Within hours, the Eagle Creek Fire had raced across 3,000 acres of old-growth forest, stranding more than 100 terrified hikers on the Pacific Crest and Eagle Creek Trails. By the next day, the river town of Cascade Locks was under evacuation orders.
Three days later, I awoke to a sickly-sweet smell in Oregon City, 70 miles west of the Gorge fires. Outside, a gray scrim of ash coated the porch and my ancient Subaru. Our house was enshrouded in a pall of smoke so thick I could barely detect the vague outlines of the house across the street. The night before the winds had shifted and the fire had surged 14-miles to the West in a few hours. I-84, the main east-west Interstate in Oregon, was closed and would remain so for three weeks. The ash and debris, still warm to the touch, continued to fall for the next five days, until the winds shifted and the fires raged to the east menacing the town of Hood River. In three weeks, the Gorge fires had burned nearly 50,000 acres. And, after nearly 30 years spent scrambling up and down each trail, I had come to know nearly each acre intimately.
As Multnomah Falls, Oneonta Gorge, Angel’s Rest and dozens of other natural jewels went up in flames, popular rage against the fire-starter intensified. There were vengeful calls for the kid to be arrested, tried as an adult, fined millions of dollars and hauled off to prison for decades. The anger toward the tyro pyro is understandable, but misplaced. The Gorge was primed to burn. If it hadn’t been firecrackers, it would have been a cigarette butt, a campfire, a spark from a truck engine, a lightning strike.
Forests, even rainforests, are born in fire. Ecologically, fire is a regenerative force. Mature Douglas-fir trees have thick, furrowed bark that makes them resistant to most fires, which historically have tended to burn in a patchwork, mosaic-like pattern, that tends to clear out the understory and reduce the fuel load but leave the big trees unscathed. The Gorge had burned before, but never like this. These fires are different. They consume whole stands of trees. They burn hotter, longer and spread faster.
The wildfire season in Oregon has expanded by 75 days since 1980. In the 1970s, the average Oregon wildfire burned for about a week before petering out. Now, forest fires here in the Northwest rage for an average of 56 days, until they are extinguished by the fall rains and snows, which come later and later each year. The number of acres burned in Oregon each year has more than doubled since 1980. What has changed in those 37 years? The climate.
If you’re looking for a culprit to blame, blame the Blob, the vast patch of warm surface water in the Pacific Ocean that has been expanding off the Northwest Coast for the past six years. The warm air currents percolating up from the Blob, which now seems less like a freakish phenomenon and more like a twisted new reality, has derailed the jet-stream. The low-pressure systems that have brought rain, fog and cool temperatures to the region for millennia have been diverted, replaced by a stubborn high pressure system that tends to stick over the Northwest from June through October. This was Oregon’s hottest and driest summer in history. The fifth such record in the last seven years. You get the picture.
But the politicians don’t. They see fire as an opportunity for plunder. Sonny Perdue and his wrecking crew at the Agriculture Department, which through a bureaucratic quirk controls the Forest Service, are portraying old-growth trees as standing weapons of mass destruction. Taking the Vietnam approach to the National Forests, which Perdue calls the “woodbasket of the world,” Perdue intends to save the forest by clearcutting it, without any restraint from troubling environmental laws. “We’re not going to roll over at every ‘boo’ from the environmentalists,” he vowed in Montana in July. How convenient for the timber industry.
Denial prevails, coast-to-coast. In Houston, the Feds are aerial spraying the wreckage of Harvey with pesticides, preparing for reconstructing in the floodplains and marshes. In Oregon, the plans are already being scripted to log the scorched forests for their own good, which is the ecological equivalent of pouring acid on a burn patient. If they succeed, the Columbia Gorge will become a sylvan necropolis to greed and climate change.
Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, Stay Sick Why Fake It?
What I’m reading this week…
Baking With Kafka by Tom Gauld
Against the Grain: a Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott
Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe
What I’m listening to this week…
Havana Meets Kingston by Mista Savona
Griot Blues by Mighty Mo Rodgers & Baba Sissoko
American Dream by LCD Sound System
Source of the Ocean by Jerry Léonide
Rain or Shine by Houston Person
Why Roman Slaves Didn’t Wear Uniforms
Mary Beard: “In the reign of the emperor Nero, when someone had the bright idea to make slaves wear uniforms, it was rejected on the grounds that this would make clear to the slave population just how numerous they were.” (SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome.)