By Bruce A. Smith
The smoke came silently at night, drifting over Eatonville from the east. Around midnight our nearly-full moon turned a deep red-orange, indicating that the grit and gases from the eastern forest fires had filled the upper atmosphere while, oddly, the ground level air remained cool and clean due to gentle maritime winds from the west.
However, the smoke settled down through the air column by morning, ushering in the fourth major smoke inundation this summer. The culprits are now familiar, but bigger and smokier:
The Norse Peak fire, in the Cascades due east of Tacoma, expanded to nearly 20,000 acres by Tuesday, according to the Northwest Coordinating Center of the National Interagency Firefighting Council. The NWCC reported today that the fire has crossed the Pacific Crest Trail and threatens the Crystal Mountain Ski Area area, triggering a Level 3 mandatory evacuation for Crystal Mountain and neighboring communities.
In addition, a nearby 500-acre blaze, named the American fire, erupted near State Route 410. Together, these flames have forced a closure to SR 410 at mile post 66-69, in the vicinity of Chinook Pass. The NWCC is reporting that 300+ firefighters are battling these fires with two helicopters and 22 fire engines.
Further, due east of Seattle in the Cle Elum area, the Jolly Mountain fire continues to send smoke throughout the Puget Sound area. The NWCC says this fire is not contained at all, and shifting winds have driven this conflagration to 20,000+ acres, drawing 700 firefighters into the fight with five helicopters and 82 fire engines seeking to protect over 4,000 threatened homes.
Air quality readings in the Puyallup area hovered near the 100 WAQA level early Tuesday, where 50 is unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as asthma patients, and 100-plus is unhealthy for the general public. Ironically, the public’s interest in knowing the current WAQA readings jammed health agency websites throughout the day. In particular, downloads to the popular wasmoke.blogspot.com site were slow, while the Department of Ecology’s WAQA monitoring website was virtually inoperative. https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/enviwa/.
However, WAQA readings became available at 9 pm, and the Puyallup level was 167 – unhealthy for all people.
At the same time fires are erupting throughout the west, often in dramatic fashion. The 10,000 acre Eagle Creek fire is burning on both shores of the Columbia River in the Gorge, prompting the closure of I-84. Seattle Times reporter Christine Clarridge states that 25 active fires in Oregon have burned over 400,000 acres this summer, and Clarridge wonders if this is our “new normal.”
Further south, Los Angeles is reporting that its biggest forest fire, historically, is burning in the Burbank area. To the north, the Diamond Creek fire in the Okanogan has now reached 68,000 acres consumed, while 1.2 million acres have burned in British Columbia.
Much further to the east, of course, we have witnessed the historic flooding of Houston with 50 inches of rain, and now Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm with sustained winds in excess of 150 mph, is approaching south Florida.
Such is the power of Mother Nature. May we find the means and manner to cope.
The hotter, drier summers of the Pacific Northwest seem to be a consequence of global climate change, which produces the conditions that generate more intense fire seasons. The New York Times reported recently that our prolonged heat waves are due in part to stalled wind patterns over the Arctic triggered by the significant warming of the polar regions. So, of course, I support a return to the Paris Climate Accords to minimize the impacts of these climate changes. I also support the regional efforts of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to develop programs that reduce atmospheric carbon and other heat-trapping gases.
Since global climate changes will not modify themselves in the short term, I feel we need to review the near-term management plans for our forests and reduce the number and intensity of fires. I think it is time to consider our national forests and DNR lands as huge timber plantations and implement programs to make our forests smaller, and thus easier to control once they erupt in flame. Perhaps the creation of selective logging corridors, plus an increased number of fire breaks and roadways can reduce the size of forest fires and thus keep them less smokey.