Everything is on fire and no one cares.
August 31, 2015 8:31 AM   Subscribe

This year, my summer visit to Idaho was swallowed, most days, in a thick, gauzy haze. It was as though the sky was overlaid with a bleakest of Instagram filters; the smoke was often so dense, it blocked the blue light spectrum entirely, washing everything in a pale, flat yellow, a creepy, apocalyptic tint that contrasted well with the redness in your eyes and the gray dryness of your throat.

Here’s the thing: It wasn’t just weird. It’s not just “an unusually hot and dry season.” You can feel it in your very cells: this is all part of a increasingly vicious, mean-ass vortex of accelerating evidence that the planet and all its animals – of which we are merely one – are under a potentially fatal stress like no other time in modern history.


Apocalypse Now
The forest floor is dry and gray and withered. Sad little clouds of dust stir up when I walk through it, coating pale stiff lichen and parched leaves of bearberry and Oregon grape. How much more of this can they take?
Something is going terribly wrong.
posted by j03 (51 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Read this when it came out, and, while I absolutely agree that the world for humans and a whole host of other species is well-and-truly in a bad way, the "am I the only one who sees this" tone really set me off. A lot of people have been pointing out the horrific shifts for some time, and have been trying to push for changes, and the result has been that there is more mainstream attention. This article exists because of that.
But I'm tired of the lament without the call-to-action.
Maybe it's just Monday, and the coffee ain't doing it, and the weekend was unsettling, and, and, and . . .
(just read the 2nd article . . . okay, better . . . or maybe more coffee . . .idk)
posted by pt68 at 8:42 AM on August 31, 2015 [10 favorites]

City boy experiences his first forest fire, blog at 11.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:46 AM on August 31, 2015 [27 favorites]

tl:dr? "It's too late."
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:47 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do you know about Alaska? Nearly five million acres have burned throughout that unusually hot, dry state this year, which is a record, which is something like the size of Connecticut (combined)

I just have to say that, switching the "New England State Based Metric of Land Area" at this late date is not going to happen. Convert that to Rhode Islands, stat! Who is responsible for the SF Gate style guide anyway?

In other news, yes, this is terrifying. California smoldering slightly every summer is just business as usual. This is the whole West Coast of North America....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:50 AM on August 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

I live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and we had about five days recently where it was so smoky that you couldn't see the Tetons whatsoever, it was depressing. On the one hand, we have tourists that came and spent insane amounts of money and didn't get to see one of the most spectacular mountain ranges on earth. On the other, it is the busiest tourist season we have ever had. That means more jets, more cars, more pollution which is ultimately fueling these fires in the first place. It's a weird and complicated moment. And I assure you that there are a lot of us that care deeply.
posted by pwally at 8:51 AM on August 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

And I assure you that there are a lot of us that care deeply.

From the context of the article it's clear that he means no one with the power to do anything about it cares.
posted by j03 at 8:56 AM on August 31, 2015

It's not just over here either... It looks like doomsday also over by Lake Baikal in Russia...
posted by evilangela at 8:57 AM on August 31, 2015

Anyway, as a nuevo New Mexican, I can say that there was a lot less coverage of the heavy fires in the state the past few summers, but we don't have the population here, so until the smoke clouds other states, it's not noticed.

Just wait until you get floods.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:59 AM on August 31, 2015

California smoldering slightly every summer is just business as usual.

I lived in suburban Los Angeles for a bit, and a person I met up there mentioned they had relatives in whatever part of CA was going up in flames at the time. She said her relatives had lived there for years and were totally prepared for fires to break out. They had stored all their precious personal belongings in fire-proof safes, for instance.

I put up with a lot of crap to live where I live because I want to live here. And I'll admit I'm sort of an anxious person. But I just really can't get my head around wanting so badly to live in a place that regularly bursts into flames in a life/property-endangering way. I'm sure it's great 90% of the time and they have friends and relatives and a community and a home but goddamn if it doesn't sound like a Faustian bargain in the long run.

And as a coda, the next summer after I had moved back to NYC, the town I was living in had burst into flames itself.
posted by griphus at 9:05 AM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, if El Nino hits (big "if," IMO), there are going to be some epic mudslides.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:06 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

We've been suffering under the same blanket of smoke over the border in BC. It has been quite unpleasant.

That said, this piece is kind of BS. The are a lot of reasons for the increase in fires over the past few years and climate change is just one of them. The way we have managed our forests for timber production and the way we have managed fire in the past have been pretty stupid - and that's now coming back to bite us. This is a huge issue with a long history. Climate change definitely is an amplifier, but it is far from the only cause.

Some guy from SF on vacation in Idaho blaming it all on climate change is the kind of thing that really annoys people who actually live in these areas. This guy doesn't seem to know anything about the subject.

I think pieces like this do more to hurt the climate cause than help.
posted by ssg at 9:14 AM on August 31, 2015 [16 favorites]

I don't understand the hostility to the "city boy" who, per the article, has been going to that place for close to fifty years. Did he do something bad?
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 9:20 AM on August 31, 2015 [11 favorites]

Some guy from SF on vacation in Idaho blaming it all on climate change is the kind of thing that really annoys people who actually live in these areas.

If the first piece is annoying to you, please consider the 2nd piece by an author who lives year-round in Washington state who holds many of the same concerns.
posted by j03 at 9:21 AM on August 31, 2015

Well, he apparently couldn't be bothered to learn anything about the fire-based ecosystem that he was visiting over those 50 years.
posted by ssg at 9:27 AM on August 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

Back at the beginning of the summer there were several large fires north of Vancouver, and a huge cloud of smog made it all the way to the Olympic Peninsula. We were nowhere near the fire, but our camping trip was sepia-toned the whole time...
posted by Nevin at 9:28 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

"Some guy from SF on vacation in Idaho blaming it all on climate change is the kind of thing that really annoys people who actually live in these areas."
Does he blame it "all" on climate change though?
In the article he states:

"Not the typical wildfires, mind you. [...] I mean all the massive, drought-amplified, state-engulfing wildfires you’ve been hearing about all season long – nearly all of them larger, earlier and more frequent than any time in modern history,..."

He acknowledges that there is a natural level of fires to be expected.
What he (and most experts I have heard/read on the subject) point out is that we're seeing an significant increase in size and frequency as well as a shift in seasonal timing which is at least in part due to climate change.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:31 AM on August 31, 2015 [8 favorites]

I think what's frustrating for people who live in these places is the notion, real or imagined, that someone would come visit from elsewhere and assume the authority to tell them they're not worrying about their own backyards the right way. I live in California, and I've been lectured on California's wildfires by people who don't live here; it comes across as an assumption that if you live here and you don't express the right kind of panic, you must be ignorant or apathetic. That's frustrating.
posted by teponaztli at 9:50 AM on August 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

This guy's writing style: it's really too precious and mannered.
posted by Flashman at 9:57 AM on August 31, 2015

I love Sandpoint and the entire Idaho panhandle, we've been visiting the area of Idaho, Spokane the Okanagan for almost a decade and this year's smoke was definitely the worst. Friends who were in Sandpoint two weeks ago said there was actual ash in the air, while up in Banff (over 400km away) we completely lost sight of the mountains due to the fires. Here's an unfiltered photo I took of the sun at dinner time (the sun sets well after 9pm here), with a comparison to the right. It was like that for three days straight and I was starting to lose my mind, I can only imagine what those closer to the fires are going through.
posted by furtive at 10:11 AM on August 31, 2015

> Well, he apparently couldn't be bothered to learn anything about the fire-based ecosystem that he was visiting over those 50 years.

Morford's incredibly irritating (to many, me included) style aside, I read an interview with a fire chief in WA who's been on the job for decades and who is currently working the Okanogan Complex Fire who used words like "unprecedented" to talk about the scope and nature of the fires. He's not the only firefighter I've heard/read use terms like that regarding the fires in the PNW this season.
posted by rtha at 10:18 AM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

He acknowledges that there is a natural level of fires to be expected.

But that's exactly the problem. He is arguing that there is some natural, normal number and intensity of fires and then there is these new, bigger fires that are caused by climate change. That's ignorant of the forest fire reality in the west.

There is no normal, at least not in our lifetimes. The fire cycle has been hugely shaped by our forestry practices, our fire management practices, our settlements, our behaviour, by pine beetle and other pests, and a whole lot of other factors. Fire and forestry practices that we have used for decades and even centuries are catching up with us. We have created the conditions for bigger, hotter fires by putting out the smaller fires that maintain a fire-resistant forest. We have created these conditions by clearcutting and then replacing the forests with single-aged, single-species stands. We have created these conditions by pushing logging roads (and the recreational users that start quite a few fires) through so much of the landscape.

This is not the natural, normal fire ecosystem, plus climate change. This is a whole bunch of factors that have been building up over many decades that are coming together now. There are more bigger fires than we have seen in our lifetimes. Climate change is definitely a significant factor, but ignoring all the other factors isn't going to help us.

What he (and most experts I have heard/read on the subject) point out is that we're seeing an significant increase in size and frequency as well as a shift in seasonal timing which is at least in part due to climate change.

Absolutely, I agree, but that isn't what this article actually says.

Actually, we have evidence that the native people in this area have been intentionally using fire to shape the ecosystem for thousands of years, so human influence over the landscape is not just a recent phenomenon.
posted by ssg at 10:25 AM on August 31, 2015 [9 favorites]

I just went looking for a map showing fire areas for this year. All I could find was one with point labels for reported fires, not anything showing the actual areas affected. Does this exist anywhere?
posted by amtho at 10:32 AM on August 31, 2015

My neighbor oversees federal firefighting efforts. I asked him about this season a week or so ago, and he said this is actually a fairly light season of fires, relative to others. Fires happen in summer. This is a dry summer, but it does not have more fire activity than normal.
posted by OmieWise at 10:43 AM on August 31, 2015

Just to be clear: there are likely very very few people with better views of this issue than my neighbor.
posted by OmieWise at 10:44 AM on August 31, 2015

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center map is the best one I know off. The fires are just shown as points at the default resolution, but if you zoom in a bit, you'll see the outlines of the fires. You can also find fire maps for other areas from here by clicking on "National" (which is worth looking at for sheer web page gloriousness).
posted by Death and Gravity at 10:53 AM on August 31, 2015

I guess that depends on what "is" Is.

"Nationally, over eight million acres have burned year-to-date. The total number of fires for this season is lower than the national average, but the acres burned are well over. No new large fires were reported yesterday." --National Interagency Fire Center
posted by entropicamericana at 10:54 AM on August 31, 2015

"My neighbor oversees federal firefighting efforts. I asked him about this season a week or so ago, and he said this is actually a fairly light season of fires, relative to others"
Western Wildfires Outpace Weary Firefighting Crews

"RENEE JACK: This particular complex and season is definitely one of the worst I've seen as far as just multiple large fires burning at the same time, causing large resource shortages.

MARTIN: That's Renee Jack. She spoke with us just before she suited up and went out on the fire line. She's been with the U.S. Forest Service for more than a decade. She is in the middle of a 14-day week, with little rest in between.

JACK: We try not to exceed 16-hour shifts and then rest for eight hours to be able to think clearly and perform well the next day.

MARTIN: Two-hundred soldiers from a nearby military base and a thousand members of the National Guard have joined the battle. Fire crews have come from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. And for the first time, the state put out a call to volunteers without prior training. Still, Renee Jack says it's not enough."

posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:55 AM on August 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

amtho, is this the sort of thing you're looking for?
(Never mind, Death and Gravity beat me to it)
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:04 AM on August 31, 2015

I live in Southern Oregon in a little valley between the Stout Creek Fire to the north, and the several fires in Northern California. For the past month the sun was pretty much just a theory, and the smoke was so dense most days that I had to dig out my nebulizer and sit wheezing at my kitchen table, grateful for the next breath.

Aside from the battalions of firefighters (about 3000 of them) staged at Milo--they fought the Stout Creek fire--and the several battalions who fought the Northern California fires, and the Firefighters from at least one foreign country, nobody gives a shit about us.

Two days ago it rained a little. The wind came in off the Pacific in two or three pressures waves, moving the smoke away from us. We trap bad air here in this valley, a natural consequence of the shape of the mountains around us. So, I saw the moon that night. And the sun the next day. Yesterday Mrs. mule and I went up to Huckleberry Mountain and picked a gallon of mountain blackberries. I will still sit under my nebulizer four times a day, probably for the next week.

I haven't heard any reports saying that any of the thousands of firefighters (in our area) were killed or injured. This time.

Forests burn. That's the law. The best we can do is clear the area around our homes and keep water in the tanks--that's if you live in the country. The local firemen can unload water from your tank into their water tenders and maybe save your house when the flames come. If you remove the understory the fires likely will ignite only a few of the trees when it visits--the two or three thousand gallons you have might be enough to hold the fire back until the helicopter can drop a bucket on it. No tank?--okay, then you just have to wait until the water tender can go down to the creek and fill up. Shouldn't take more than a couple of hours. We city dwellers like to put money in the boot every year when the volunteer fire departments hold their fund raisers--they stand in the street holding up a boot, into which we drop money as we drive by.

I feel for the residents of Idaho. Some fifteen years ago the Elk Creek fire (a couple miles north of where I was living at the time) blotted the sun for three months. Fires will happen. The forests need them. Nothing weird or supernatural about it, but it's a good idea to not help the process along with human carelessness.
posted by mule98J at 11:10 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

griphus: I put up with a lot of crap to live where I live because I want to live here. And I'll admit I'm sort of an anxious person. But I just really can't get my head around wanting so badly to live in a place that regularly bursts into flames in a life/property-endangering way.

As a former Californian who has survived a few major fires, including just-in-case pack up everything and wait for further notice and a full evacuation (where houses just up the block from ours being reduced to ash, but we no personal property loss), I can say my rationalization was that fire is slower gives you more warning than a tornado, or even floods (and you can build better buildings to withstand earthquakes). We didn't live in a perpetual state of preparedness. Those two times we packed, we had time to get everything we needed.

But just to be rational, don't live in a wooded canyon, for the love of all that is good and fuzzy. You're just waiting to have your house burn down. Seriously, we lived a few miles from canyons of that sort that burned down every 5-10 years (so it seemed - maybe not that frequently, but still too frequent for me).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:26 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

This past summer here on Vancouver Island is the driest one I can remember. The Garry Oak meadows on the south end of the island were golden-hued by the end of June, and by early August were parched-looking. Before the rains last week everything just looked dusty and dead. Unnerving.
posted by Nevin at 11:44 AM on August 31, 2015

Usually this is where I gloat about how much it rains here but it's only rained twice since June.
posted by octothorpe at 11:52 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

...For example: Western Wildfire Smoke Has Drifted Over the Atlantic

Sidebar question: Have these fires affected health problems in downwind states? As in, everything east of the west coast? I ask because my son has been battling some really freakishly bad eye irritations this summer that no doctor can pin down to any actual infection. Could the smoke from the fires affect people on the ground in Indiana? Or is is too far up in the atmosphere to have any physical effect here?
posted by Thorzdad at 12:11 PM on August 31, 2015

Hell, last weekend in Portland was like breathing over a campfire.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:22 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I just co-wrote a book about smokejumping, and I haven't heard from my co-author (based in north-central Washington) in about six weeks. He's really in the shit up there.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:24 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was in Spokane a week ago (for worldcon). Note: British guy here, we don't do wildfires.

One day, the sky was a pale brown and the sun was this red light you could stare at without pain or after-images. The next day got so bad that there was a general pollution alert out -- the PM10 particulates were so bad that everyone was at risk if breathing outside. I was hitting my salbutamol inhaler (and I only get wheezy normally when I've had a chest infection); the air in the air-conditioned hotel corridors stank of wood smoke, never mind the lobby.

We stood in front of the windows watching the airliners (mostly Avro RJ-85s) retardant-bombing the hills five miles or so outside town. The running nervous joke at worldcon was that it was a toss-up between us having to evacuate to avoid the rabid puppies or the wildfires.

Has the USA ever lost a major city to wildfires? Because I notice a lot of the buildings thereabouts seem to be made out of wood ...
posted by cstross at 1:32 PM on August 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think the cause of urban fires was generally humans, not wildfires, but cities large and small, especially in the western part of North America, used to burn all the time before WWII. Definitely a downside to wood-framed construction before we had effective fire fighting.
posted by ssg at 1:55 PM on August 31, 2015

I haven't live in Idaho since the '90s but I was very alarmed this summer seeing long stretches of 110 degrees plus weather in Boise. That is definitely not normal. Forest fires are, to a degree, but it never used to be that hot there.
posted by Jess the Mess at 2:18 PM on August 31, 2015

Another contributing part of this is that logging effectively (somewhat anyway) took the place of fire for thinning, and now anytime an agency proposes any increase or resumption of logging activity it immediately gets sued every which way. It doesn't seem to matter how many studies are done, how much of the revenue will be useful for long term active management (controlled burns mostly) or what else is done. It seems to be they are philosophically opposed to logging in any form-clear cuts, selective thinning or harvesting.

So instead of the trees being used for buildings, generating revenue and being a part of long term land management the forest grows wild in the wet years, then burns in the dry years, benefiting no-one.
posted by bartonlong at 2:59 PM on August 31, 2015

> Has the USA ever lost a major city to wildfires?

Not exactly, but also not exactly not: Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991.
posted by rtha at 2:59 PM on August 31, 2015

The next day got so bad that there was a general pollution alert out -- the PM10 particulates were so bad that everyone was at risk if breathing outside.

Totally. I live in Missoula, not far from Spokane, and we've had unhealthy to very-unhealthy particulate levels in our air for about 12 days straight now. It just finally started to clear up last night, although that's mostly due to weather conditions, not necessarily fire severity; it could get bad again very quickly if an inversion sets up over the city (like it does most afternoons...).

The health effects of this kind of chronic smoke exposure are real and bad, even for people who aren't in sensitive groups. Before it finally started to clear, my chest was starting to hurt like I had a deep infection, and I'd had a low-grade headache for three days. I felt dizzy when I stood up when it was particularly bad. I hadn't been able to go outside to exercise in a full week because my lungs hurt so badly when I did, and I could barely even open our windows for more than a few minutes before the air started to hurt to breathe. Everything in my house reeks like a campfire. I live right across the river from a big sheer rock face, and for most of this weekend the visibility was so poor that I could barely see the cliff 200 meters away from my window.

I have a lot more to say about forest science, fire ecology, Forest Service policy, and the way our society relates to fire, but it will be a bit before I have time to come back to the thread. For now, I'll just say that I have the privilege of working alongside a number of world-class fire ecologists here at UM and at the USFS's Rocky Mountain Research Station Fire Research Lab*, and all of them are extremely concerned about not just this particularly bad fire season, but the very clear trend of increasing fire activity and severity - and they're especially concerned about the concomitant (and drastic) increase in the proportion of the Forest Service budget devoted to firefighting.

This isn't just a climate story and it isn't just a logging story; this is ultimately a story about fuels. Fire ecologists will often talk about two triangles: the fire triangle, and the fire behavior triangle. The fire triangle describes the three factors that fire requires: ignition, oxygen, and fuel. The fire behavior triangle describes the three factors that drive a fire's behavior once it's ignited: weather, topography, and fuel. You can probably guess from those triangles that the main thing we can even pretend to control in our forests is the fuel load (climate change almost certainly affects ignition probability, too, but those ignition events are so stochastic and driven by microclimate that we can't do much to manage it).

A catastrophic stand-replacing crown fire can only occur when there is enough fuel to drive it. Leaving ignition and fire behavior aside, fire severity is largely a function of biomass (how much stuff is there to burn) and humidity (how dry that stuff is). When there is a lot of biomass onsite, as in a fire-suppressed forest, and that biomass is extremely dry, as in a year with very low precipitation, then we have a high probability of not just forest fire, but very severe forest fire that can spread into the canopy of the forest, spread very quickly, and burn for a long time. It's not just the number of fires or the area affected by the fires, but also about the severity.

Severity (a measure of a fire's intensity and destructiveness, essentially) is a very important concept to keep in mind because fire is not binary; a forest responds very differently to a mild duff fire in the understory than to a catastrophic crown fire. Organisms (and thus ecosystems and communities) are adapted not just to different fire frequencies, but also different fire severities. Generally speaking, there are fuel-related trade-offs between frequency and severity such that fires that burn frequently but with low severity, or infrequently but with high severity (though there are definitely exceptions).

Many of the ecosystems that are currently aflame with high-severity fires are actually adapted for more frequent, low-severity fire (e.g. Ponderosa pine-dominated forests). On average, that means that (at least in the short run) these forests will experience higher mortality of adult trees, greater soil hydrophobicity leading to reduced water retention, greater canopy destruction resulting in less habitat for wildlife, and fewer seed sources leading to reduced recruitment.

In short, the fact that these organisms tend to be adapted to a different fire regime than what they are now experiencing will tend to lead to those communities having reduced resilience and resistance to these disturbances - and the way that an ecosystem recovers following catastrophic disturbance can not just impact the ecosystem's health, but the very nature of the ecosystem that develops there after the fire. There are many examples of abrupt fire regime changes leading to complete ecological state changes (as in the increasingly cheatgrass-dominated sagebrush steppe - much to the chagrin of the greater sage grouse). There is no guarantee whatsoever that what grows back afterwards will be the same thing that grew there before the fire, and in many cases, broad swaths of disturbed soils will make ideal homes for invasive species, as in the cheatgrass/sage steppe example. The more severe the fire, the more likely that we would see abrupt differences in the ecosystem that develops on that site.

While we absolutely do need to reduce fuel loads in our Western US forests, simply increasing logging activity is not the solution (and you will start to hear that suggested as things get worse and people start to regard our forest management as an actual political issue, not just something that only affects environmentalists and the timber industry). We need to be using best practices in prescribed burning and salvage logging, and we need to be devoting as many resources to fuel buildup prevention and proactive landscape management as we are to emergency firefighting.

One of the biggest things that would help is for everyone to get much more comfortable with prescribed, controlled fires being set by land managers; NIMBYism about controlled burns is a big part of what keeps us from devoting adequate resources to preventative prescribed burning programs instead of crisis management after the fact. When I have more time this evening, I'll try to put together some resources on what we currently think are the best forestry practices for avoiding the kind of fuel buildup that primarily drives these increases in fire severity and frequency, and how the Forest Service and other agencies have been dealing with these challenges.

* If you're curious about fire science, some of the amazing research they're doing at the Fire Lab was featured in a great episode of Going Deep with David Rees last year!
posted by dialetheia at 3:02 PM on August 31, 2015 [23 favorites]

cstross, Colorado lost a decent sized portion of a large subdivision in the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs 3 summers ago. I think over 30,000 residents were evacuated, including the Air Force Academy which is a large military installation.

The very next summer, the Black Forest fire burned over 500 homes in a very short amount of time, basically just across the highway from the Waldo Canyon burn.

and a week after the Waldo Canyon fire, our very own neighborhood was evacuated owing to the Flatirons fire, started by dry lightning. 2012 was a very bad fire year in Colorado. Incidentally, our house sits just below the NCAR facility, which is the lights on the hilltop below the blazing peak in that photo. Not pictured? the 100kph hot, dry chinook wind that was howling that night.

One of the significant dangers to neighborhoods close to the Flatirons, as in the houses lost in the Waldo Canyon fire (which are under the Rampart Range, a similarly sheer escarpment), is that of embers blowing onto rooftops - this can happen very suddenly and the embers can be carried from miles away. You might laugh, but the moment we heard of the fire in 2012, we and all the neighbors were out madly spraying down our roofs, our trees, our fences, our lawns, anything we could reach on our property with the hose. 10% humidity, 35°C temperatures and 100kph winds are literally an explosive combination.

oh and Boulder only outlawed shake (wooden) shingles a few years ago, and there are any number of "historic" homes still out there in the canyons and western side of town who were "grandfathered" in and haven't bothered updating yet. And you cannot convince property owners living in the canyons to keep up with brush cutting and dead / compromised tree removal, either, because keep your gummint off my property, or whatever.

We have had a very low incidence of fire in the Front Range this year thanks to a very wet spring and normal summer monsoon season, but the past month has been very dry, and thanks to all the rain we have enormous fuel loads. We have also had a lot of hazy, smoky days related to the enormous wildfires burning in the Pacific NW and Central Rockies, despite being over a thousand km away.
posted by lonefrontranger at 3:15 PM on August 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

In 2011 there was a massive wildfire southeast of Austin near Bastrop. Destroyed homes in a subdivision as well as a significant chunk of a state park.
posted by LizBoBiz at 3:51 PM on August 31, 2015

Has the USA ever lost a major city to wildfires? Because I notice a lot of the buildings thereabouts seem to be made out of wood

Yes, Hinkley MN burned to the ground in 1894 in one of the largest forest fire disasters in American History - 418 people died.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:55 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

There isn't much I can add in terms of forestry to dialetheia's fantastic comment above. Today is the first semi-clear day here in many weeks. It has been awful even for someone in good health like myself, and anyone in poor health would be really suffering. This area is basically ringed with significant fires, and the other day I drove over 700 miles without ever leaving the smoke haze. Fire resources are stretched beyond thin -- the crews I drive by look haggard and exhausted, and are being leapfrogged around to triage the riskiest fires. For a while I was driving through an active fire every day (which is its own kind of surreal), and on one long drive I lost count of the burns I went through.

The landuse and forestry management decisions we have made over the last century, and the last three or four decades especially, are just shameful. The worst in my eyes has been the unrestricted permission to build houses in places that have regular fire regimes, because having structures (with people and pets) changes everything from a fire management perspective. It's relatively easy to allow a controlled burn of a forested hillside, but impossible when there are second homes and cabins on that hillside. Forests and scrub lands around here have absurd fuel loads, so when fires come they are intense rather than the low-grade, frequent fires that native americans used for thousands of years to manage the landscape.

As others have noted, the article itself is insufferable, which is a pity because the actual issues are important and incredibly complex.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:59 PM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've found these Washington Wildfire Fly Through videos by Kenji Kato extremely interesting (and staggering) to follow.

I was in Colorado Springs for both the Waldo Canyon Fire and the Black Forest Fire (and for the flooding afterward, woot), and the USFS is still working in Waldo Canyon to mitigate flash flooding. It will be, for years.

Firefighters in the desert town in Arizona I now live in are still mopping up hotspots from a nearly 7,000 acre blaze (destroyed 11 homes), started by lightning in early August. The fuel load here, primarily invasive salt cedar, but also mesquite, willow, brush, and grass, is astonishingly high.

If I could favorite dialetheia's comment 100 times, I would, but I would change "we absolutely do need to reduce fuel loads in our Western US forests," to "we absolutely do need to reduce fuel loads in the Western U.S."

It's scary out here, but Moford still sounds as if he's been sleeping through the past 5 decades in Idaho.
posted by faineant at 1:37 AM on September 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Whew, I was worried we were going to have to do something about climate change. But really the problem has been land management and 'entirely too precious' writing styles the whole time! What a relief that the unprecedented drought conditions have almost nothing to do with the massive scale of the forest fires. That way we can continue to ignore how our lavish, oil fueled lifestyle contributes to this ecological horror show. And it's a really good thing that this guy's writing style sucks, that way I don't have to bother empathizing with his stupid feelings of loss and helplessness in the face of on-going climate disasters. If this guy really wanted my empathy, he would have learned how to express himself in a way that resonated with my personal stylistic preferences.
posted by j03 at 7:28 AM on September 2, 2015

No, you're right, you should rain hosannas down upon the urban blogger because he has just apparently figured out what those of us who actually live in wildfire country noticed at least 5-10 years ago.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:07 AM on September 2, 2015

Your superiority is duly noted. No need to bother discussing the actual substance of the article because you already know it all. Just attack the author for being an ignorant urbanite and then the substantial impacts of climate change can be dismissed! Vacationing urbanites aren't allowed to express feelings of hopelessness and loss about places they don't live in year round. To think he has the gall to have feelings about a place he has only visited yearly for decades! What a knob!
posted by j03 at 8:22 AM on September 2, 2015

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