West Burning

Smoke in eastern Washington from the September 2020 burning of Oregon

Like all long-term residents of the American West, I’ve seen plenty of fire seasons. I’ve put up with the smoke, mourned the lost homes, fretted over favorite places, watched the slow recoveries. I’ve even been in the middle of big, active fires. But my God, what’s going on now is unreal! Last Monday, the next town over from me had evacuations as houses burned in evilly rattling winds. And while all the county fire crews were dealing with that blaze, another flared up thirty miles away, and within a couple hours the towns of Malden and Pine City, Washington were mostly gone. A third fire burned my favorite section of nearby river and destroyed a beautiful 100-year-old covered bridge. I spent the day refreshing the one Facebook page that was giving detailed coverage of the situation and wondering when it might be time to catch the cats and leave.

Smoke in the Washington Palouse

And those burns here in Whitman County were virtually nothing compared to what happened the next day in Oregon. Or what’s been going on in California. Several of my friends in Montana were evacuating or fearing for their homes last week. An unusually early snowstorm dampened that fire, along with other in Colorado and New Mexico.

One downside to being very familiar with and connected to many, many parts of the American West is that all these events hit home personally for me. So many of the dots on this terrible 2020 fire map are a friend, a beautiful scene, a photograph, an adventure, an ambition, a secret, a struggling species, a memory.

I don’t have a ton of intelligent things to say about all this. Fire science, climate change and land management are deep topics, and people should put in some study before shooting their mouths off about them. But I do wish to point out a couple things, especially to non-westerners in the audience. First, the towns burning are not all bedroom and redneck communities in the woods. Phoenix and Talent, Oregon are suburbs in a sizeable city of around 100,000 people, and they got hammered. (Update: I just read that 80% of Phoenix Elementary students lost their homes. 50% of Talent Elementary.) 10% of Oregon’s population is under evacuation orders right now. This is not just a deep rural issue. Secondly, these are not all forest fires. I see lots of people taking cheap shots at environmentalists with the implication that logging would solve this problem. But leaving aside the fact that logged areas also burn and burn hot, the bad fires in Washington this week happened mostly in wheat, orchards, grass and sage. And small towns. You can’t log those, just as you can’t log California scrub and chaparral.

Satellite views of Malden, Washington area before and after Labor Day 2020.

A fire near me today as I write this. I’m glad it’s not windy.

I tell myself, as I always do, that fire happens, the West is a fire-shaped landscape. Nothing stays the same, but recovery will happen. It’s true and yet it isn’t. Invasive species in the wake of fires change ecosystems for good. Some plant species cannot reestablish themselves under current conditions. Some of these fires may be wiping out whole populations of endemic animals. Fire is natural, but what we are seeing now is not a natural fire regime. There will be recovery, but there will also be scars and it’s okay to mourn.

For me, the mourning is taking the form of looking through my photo archives and reflecting on how many of them depict fire in some form: landscapes that had burned or had a history of burning, landscapes that would burn after I photographed them, smoky air and fire weather, as well as flames themselves. I’ve collected some here as a small offering in honor of a burning country.

The Past – Landscapes that burned after I photographed them

Present Burns: Fire in action, smoke, haze and light

The Future: Landscapes post-fire or where burns are common

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