A week ago this past Monday, I was awakened sometime after midnight by the smell of smoke. I was camped near Eel Creek at the Oregon Dunes, taking a little bit of a break from hours in front of my computer and the last hustle of essential tasks before beginning a nine-month sabbatical from my job at the university. It felt like a very strange time to be doing that: as my colleagues on the faculty and staff prepared for a hybridized, partly-open, blended-learning campus, I was preparing to…do something else.
That something else is the Anake program at Wilderness Awareness School, which has also had to make adjustments in response to the pandemic. One of those adjustments was that the program would not take its tracking trip to the Oregon Dunes. I had been there before as part of WAS’s Tracking Intensive a few years ago, and decided to go on my own.
As I made my way down I-5 and then through the Coast Range to the Oregon coast, my navigation app kept popping high-wind warnings at me. After some investigation I’d previously concluded that the range itself would shield me from the worst of the wind. This turned out to be true. What I hadn’t reckoned–what a lot of people hadn’t reckoned–was the effect the unseasonal easterly wind would have on the Pacific Northwest’s increasingly severe fire season.
I stayed at the Dunes until Wednesday morning, doing less tracking than I’d planned–the wind and increasing smoke made it difficult–but getting in a hike to the sea, which is about 2.5 miles from the campground I was staying in. I sat on the sand, ate my snack, and watched pelicans, shorebirds, and vultures going about their business as the sky above gradually smeared with yellowish smog. That night, at my campsite, ash fell on me like flurries of snow.
At that moment I was over a hundred miles and a mountain range’s width away from the nearest fire. But, as the rest of the U.S. is discovering this week, smoke spreads. So does fire, and by Wednesday morning I was concerned about how close the fires were getting to major highways. Not only did I not want to be cut off from getting home, I didn’t want to get in the way of people evacuating from the small towns east of I-5, or the firefighters and relief workers coming to their aid.
The sky was dark orange as I drove through Salem. The pale blue over Portland, where the worst of the smoke hadn’t yet reached, seemed strange. I crossed the Columbia River with a sense of having escaped, and spent a socially distant afternoon in a friend’s yard in Centralia where the smoke was still mild.
Since then, back in Seattle and then out in Duvall to start the program, I’ve mostly been indoors. The air quality in Duvall is somewhat better than in Seattle–higher elevation, more trees, a few light rain showers have made a modest difference. But it’s been bad enough that the first week of an outdoor-oriented program has mostly been conducted online. Much as schools around the country are doing.
Since I came back I’ve run across commentary, mostly from people who don’t live in this part of the country, about the fire danger to Portland and Seattle. This is not the way to think about this problem. Portland and Seattle are at basically zero risk of being directly affected. It’s the smaller towns, the farms and remote homes situated in what’s called the wildland-urban interface, that are at risk, and these are the human-inhabited places that have burned.
Last year I had the opportunity to meet Washington’s commissioner of public lands, who gave a talk on wildfire in the state. West of the Cascade range we tend to think of fire as an eastside problem. But this, too, isn’t the way to think about it. Fire is less common on the western side, but it does happen. And because it’s less frequent, when it does occur, it’s worse.
Portland and Seattle aren’t in direct danger. Neither, by and large, are the areas to which the wildfire smoke has since spread–across most of the country, really. But this, too, isn’t the way to think about this problem. Waiting until something is literally in our faces, negatively impacting our lives in obvious and tangible ways, is waiting too long.
We’ve already waited too long.