Wildfire smoke that recently covered the East Coast resonated in this part of the country for two primary reasons. Both of them could be beneficial.
One is that it brought national attention to an issue that long has been prominent throughout the American West.
As syndicated columnist John Micek wrote from Washington, D.C.: “All those historic sites you learned about in sixth-grade social studies class were still visible — but the dense haze, and the glare from the sunlight bouncing off of it, was impossible to miss. It also was a reminder that, for as much as we talk about ‘saving the Earth,’ we’re really talking about saving ourselves. And every time we inflict some injury on our shared home, we move that much closer to hastening our own demise.”
The wildfires that produced the haze were nowhere near the nation’s capital; they were hundreds of miles away in Canada. But as smoke choked major cities, we couldn’t help but think that lawmakers and policy wonks and media pundits who often reside in an East Coast cocoon might finally have some sense of what us Westerners have known for years: Climate change is real and impacts our daily lives.
As Chelsea Harvey writes in Scientific American: “The episode is a wake-up call for the East Coast, which has far less experience with wildfire smoke than the highly flammable West. Shrouded in haze, places like New York and Washington, D.C., experienced their worst air pollution on record last week — and got a possible glimpse of their future in a changing climate.”
If a blanket of smoke can generate some seriousness about climate policy, then perhaps some good can come out of a few hazy days on the East Coast.
The other possible benefit is that the scenes served as a call for preparation and diligence in this part of the country. Conditions are ripe for a devastating wildfire season, with much of Western Washington seeing less than 25 percent of its average precipitation over the past several weeks.
Meanwhile, budget debates are threatening the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund. Agency officials have warned that the fund is facing a $12 billion shortfall as soon as August, but Congress is divided over a supplemental budget package that would address that shortfall.
With or without federal disaster relief funding, Washington must be prepared for a summer of wildfires that threaten homes, lives and wildlife while spreading their exhaust throughout the region. As Clark County residents learned last year through the Nakia Creek Fire, which burned nearly 2,000 acres, even populated areas west of the Cascades are not immune from the threat.
The Nakia Creek Fire was caused by human activity, as are an estimated 85 percent of wildfires. The National Park Service reports: “Human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, equipment use and malfunctions, negligently discarded cigarettes, and intentional acts of arson.”
The state Department of Natural Resources provides advice for preventing wildfires, including tips for campfire safety and for home landscaping in dry conditions. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz urges: “The far-reaching effects of wildfire touch us all. Let’s help mitigate those effects here at home with safe and smart decisions.”
Even a small spark in dry conditions can turn into a wildfire that burns thousands of acres. That fact of life long has been understood in this part of the country, but all Americans were reminded of it last week.