Pacific Northwest Wildfires

Shayanne Summers holds her dog, Toph, while wrapped in a blanket Sunday after several days of staying in a tent at an evacuation center in Oak Grove, Oregon.

We should not be surprised that much of the West is on fire. Or that more than 3.1 million acres already have burned in California, plus another million in Oregon and in Washington state, and that tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate.

The downwind consequences shouldn’t come as a shock, either: Toxic plumes have darkened the skies of the small Oregon town of Sisters, as well as the metropolitan areas of Seattle, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The least surprising thing about this summer’s conflagrations is that we have done this to ourselves. We are the architects of the world that is now going up in smoke. Picture one Los Angeles Times photograph of a paint-stripped car resting on its buckled roof, its tires and hubcaps incinerated and wheels weirdly melted. Framing the backdrop are the ash-white remains of a Sierran forest.

The photograph was snapped in the furious aftermath of the Bear Fire, since subsumed into the North Complex Fire, which has burned 250,000 acres in California’s Plumas National Forest.

Its symbolism is impossible to ignore.

Even as we fear for the owners of these abandoned automobiles, and are astounded at the intensity of heat that could turn tempered steel molten, we can’t miss how burned-out cars explain our fiery circumstances. After all, no sooner had this four-wheeled, fossil-fueled, late 19th-century technology been invented, than it became one of the icons of the Industrial Revolution, a sign of economic prosperity.

But the greenhouse gases spewing from these vehicles’ tailpipes have contributed to the profound change in the Earth’s climate. As a result of planetary warming, large swaths of the West have been drying out. Since the 1980s, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California have borne the brunt of this process, according to the Palmer Drought Severity Index; and the pace has quickened over the past two decades.

Other Environmental Protection Agency statistics indicate that warmer and drier conditions will persist for the rest of the century, altering vegetation cover, endangering wildlife and sparking a significant increase in intense fire activity. The result is anthropogenic, meaning “we did it.”

Less well understood is that this rapidly evolving human geography has forged a close link between sprawl and wildland fires. Consider that booming Clackamas County near Portland and fast-growing Deschutes County in eastern Oregon are both under a fire siege.

Los Angeles is the poster child for the history of this larger western experience. Between the 1950s and 1970s, for example, its elite began to build mansions in the Hollywood and Beverly Hills. No sooner had celebrities set up house there than devastating fires ripped through the neighborhoods. In 1961, then-Vice President Richard Nixon was photographed atop his Bel Air home, hose in hand, wetting down its shake-shingled roof.

Since then, a migratory surge has flowed out on a dense freeway network, whose every exit contains an interlocking set of subdivisions, gas stations, restaurants and big-box centers. Fire mitigation has not been high on residents’ agenda, and these instant towns have generated the same smoke-filled results. Fires have swept through the town of Sylmar, in northern Los Angeles County, four times since 2008.

This pattern of build-and-burn will continue in Southern California and elsewhere because city representatives and county commissioners, along with those developers who underwrite their political campaigns, green-light housing projects. This includes some that are slotted into high-severity fire zones. One example is the gargantuan 12,000-acre planned community called Centennial that is being built in the flammable foothills of the Sierra Pelona and Tehachapi mountains. When completed, it will be home to 60,000 people, many of whom will commute into Los Angeles on an already gridlocked I-5.

What could halt this suburbanizing march into the woods? Stronger local control over new development with a hand from insurance companies, weary from shelling out money to subsidize building again and again in fire zones.

Everything else seems to have failed.

Meanwhile, here’s some unsolicited advice for residents of California, Oregon and Washington: Better keep a go-bag handy so you’re ready when told to evacuate.

Char Miller is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.com, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a writer and professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont, California. The views expressed here are solely his own.

Char Miller is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.com, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a writer and professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont, California. The views expressed here are solely his own.

(3) comments

Ken Chison

Sorry Char. Arson is not global warming. California, Oregon and Washingtons failed policies, from it's liberal government , and failed environmental policies, from once again a liberal mindset, are the only thing to blame for these fires. Nice try though.

dee VIRGIL

Fires have nothing at all to do with "climate change" which is hoax science peddled by far left wing nut jobs without any actual proof. Not a single mathematical model support it or comes close. No reaction kinetics, no thermodynamic models, no mass or energy balances. It's just a bunch of made up huey. The fact remains the earth has been warming since last ice age nearly 10,000 years ago. The main energy drive of EArth's temperature changes in the solar system is the SUN. The Sun, sunspot activity, and solar winds outweigh any unsubstantiated impact of a few ppm of CO2 in atmosphere by orders of magnitudes. Furthermore there is nothing humanity can do about it short of inventing warp speed and finding another suitable planet to live on. Don't buy the media hype, they are mostly untrained people who follow the brain washed cult in first place. News sources are reporting that vast majority of these fires have been started by arsonists, antifa, and protest organization. As well as one started by gender-bender "party", who are now being sued. None of these FACTS are ever mentioned by brain washed far left media. They can't handle the truth.

Mickey Sutton

Interesting that there is no mention of the mismanagement of the forests. Yes, we will continue to have slightly higher temperatures, but when you look at the actual science, even if we (all nations) completely eliminated all man-made carbon emissions, it would only lower the average temperatures globally by 0.172 degrees celsius by the end of this century. I'm using information by Ben Shapiro, from his podcast of 9/15,knowing he and his staff do a lot of research.

But we can, and should do something about the forests and brush underneath that contributes to the intensity of these fires to mitigate potential destruction in the coming years. Those things we used to do like thinning, cutting and replanting, controlled burning, etc. have been shut down by environmental groups.

As far as carbon emissions, we need to work at efforts to recapture and make new technology to reduce emissions more economically efficient. People in this country have been very good at developing these technologies and we should continue to work on this. Let's put our efforts and our money into processes that will help instead of fear about what's to come.

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