Forest Fires of the American West

 

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Everywhere I wanted to go this weekend was either on fire, or the route was on fire. I had about four destinations in mind, and made the decision a couple of days before I took off, based on the latest forest fire maps and the live webcam views that showed the clearest, bluest skies. Was that fog through the mountains I passed through at night? But it’s dry here, 75 degrees out, and it smells like smoke. Morning revealed the reality, smoke so thick to “where the sun is choked out”, as the gas station attendant in Talent, Oregon put it. The blood red sun like I had seen a couple of years before, when I was on my motorcycle and calculated that if I didn’t make it through that day, the road might be closed tomorrow; and it was, from the fire I saw just starting, that killed a couple of firefighters a few days later. Even at my destination, I saw the touch of fire from years’ past. I thought about many things, one of which being how forest fires are part of the natural cycle in the North American west; how by preventing fires, and not managing forests in ways that mimic what would be the natural outcome of burns, we leave the forests more flammable with more fuel available that burns more intensely and more widespread than if nature was allowed to take its natural course. I thought of the stranger who had joined me for dinner at a campground once, who had once worked as a smokejumper, and between his stories and getting a tour of an actual smokejumper base in Missoula, Montana, I had a better sense of the immensity and complexity of these fires, the ecosystem, and attempts and thought processes behind trying to manage them, preventively or during an actual burn. On this trip, I almost didn’t recognize the hill right in front of me, visibility was that bad. I wanted to document what I was seeing, and my camera at times protested: it did not see anything to focus on, either. A San Diego fire department truck was up in NorCal; USDA trucks caravanned along the highway. The impact is not just local; it radiates out more than we realize.