Smoke and Acrimony
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
SMOKE AND ACRIMONY: A week after wildfires began consuming thousands of acres in Washington, firefighters are making progress on some of the most destructive blazes in state history. To date, more than 806,000 acres have burned in Washington state, 620,000 of which have burned since Labor Day. The precise cause of these fires remain under investigation—although all of them appear to be the result of human activity—but that’s not stopping our divided society from seeking blame.
President Donald Trump added to the smoke and acrimony as he toured the extent of wildfire damage in California over the weekend, casting doubt on the science of climate change and its role in the devastating wildfires and predicting that it would soon get “cooler.”
The governors of California, Oregon, and Washington have all said global warming is priming forests for wildfires as they become hotter and drier. Scientists agree, noting wildfires are becoming all but inevitable as plants and trees are drying out due to climate change and more people living closer to areas that burn.
“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch,” Trump predicted of the advance of global warming.
“I wish science agreed with you,” replied Wade Crowfoot, California Secretary for Natural Resources.
“I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump lazily offered, with the same fatal assurance he delivered last spring that science was wrong about the cornonavirus.
“What a bunch of ignorance,” cried Governor Jay Inslee. The Washington Democrat made the science and policy of climate change a central plank in his brief run for the White House last year.
“These willful denials are harming our nation and our people,” the governor said. ”This abandonment of leadership has once again left the states on their own to fight this existential threat to our people.
“Wildfires are not new in the Western states,” Inslee noted in an open letter to the administration, “yet the 21st century is quickly laying claim to the worst levels of devastation we have ever seen. It took five days for 2020 to become our state’s second-worst fire season on record with more than 600,000 acres burned, eclipsed only by the 1.1 million acres burned in 2015. Worse events in California and Oregon have sent historic levels of smoke to the Puget Sound region, forcing millions of Washingtonians indoors until it passes.”
Closest to the Salish Sea, a wildfire was discovered Aug. 16 near Downey Creek in the steep terrain of the Glacier Peak Wilderness above Darrington. The suspected cause may be a lightning strike, and the fire has grown grown significantly and is currently estimated at 2,570 acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
With more than 6,000 homes and structures destroyed across the Pacific states, dozens of deaths, nearly 5 million acres burnt and many millions of dry acres at risk, economists estimate the financial impacts dealt by wildfires in 2020 is likely to surpass $150 billion. And the height of the 2020 wildfire season has not yet even reached its peak.
“Temperatures are consistently rising while moisture is increasingly evaporating,” Inslee described overall changes to the Pacific Northwest ecosystem. “Forest management is merely one piece of the puzzle—something our own firefighters would be quick to remind you. Since 2009, our state has spent more than $130 million for forest health and fire preparedness. These events still overwhelm our residents and resources, because these fires are unlike anything people have seen before.”
The federal government produced a rigorous, comprehensive report, the National Climate Assessment, that concluded “the annual area burned in the western United States could increase 2–6 times from the present” if current trends continue, due to human-caused climate change.
Research by the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington shows our region is dealing with higher temperatures and less frost, which is both affecting our water reclamation efforts and heightening conditions for fires throughout our diverse ecosystems, not just forests. The group projects temperatures will rise rapidly throughout this century, making conditions ripe for longer fire seasons and more challenging circumstances for trying to mitigate them.
“Climate change is doing more damage to our communities faster than anyone thought,” Inslee observed. “Hotter temperatures are drawing more moisture out of soils, grasses, bushes and trees—which evolved over thousands of years to withstand less severe fires—turning them into the perfect fuel for ignition.
“I would urge you,” Inslee noted in remarks to Trump, “to abandon your half-baked theories and engage in good faith about the obvious relationship between climate change and wildfires.
“The rules of fighting wildfires are changing because our climate is changing. There is no fire suppression plan on this planet that does anyone any good if it doesn’t even acknowledge the role of climate change. Deliberate and decisive action must be taken on a global scale, with the United States in the lead.
“It is time to abandon the disastrous course that now envelops us in smoke and ash,” Inslee wrote. “A new approach could slow or turn around the damage done by climate change, all while building a more robust and more sustainable future for all 50 states.”
“The states are willing and eager to work in partnership with the federal government to protect all Americans from the ravages of climate change,” Inslee predicted. Washingtonians in places such as Malden, Bonney Lake, Bridgeport, and Graham—which have all begun long roads to recovery from the fires of recent days—deserve as much.”