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The West Coast Wildfires Are Apocalypse, Again

On September 11th, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, the concentration of fine particulates in the air above my small town in southern Washington State peaked at eight hundred and ninety-five micrograms per cubic metre. Owing to an unlucky combination of nearby wildfires, wind currents, and topography, our air pollution was off the charts of any standard index, and at the time ranked among the worst in the world.

Few of us noticed the milestone, however, because it turns out that off-the-charts pollution doesn’t feel very different from barely-on-the-charts pollution—which we’d endured since the previous evening, and would continue to experience through the following week. Familiar cliffs and ridges disappeared, and clouds of smoke hung just above the pavement. Even through an N95 mask, the air tasted of ashes. Inside, opening a window was out of the question; without air-conditioning, it was sweltering, and without an air purifier, it stank of burning trash, a smell that quickly permeated clothes and furniture. Becalmed and doubly quarantined, we waited for relief, checking air-quality forecasts and peering out the windows for signs of change. Though the skies never turned lurid orange and red, as they did in the Bay Area, they fluctuated between what David Bieloh, of The American Prospect, dubbed Unholy Ochre and Apocalypto Smoke.

This fall, the notion of apocalypse was routinely invoked on the West Coast, both in dark jokes and official comments. On September 13th, Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, and Senator Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, separately described the fires as “apocalyptic.” “I drove six hundred miles up and down the state, and I never escaped the smoke,” Merkley told ABC News. Two days later, Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, characterized the West Coast as an “orange hellscape.” The Four Horsemen might not be en route yet, he wrote in the Guardian, but they “are mounted.”

If by “apocalyptic” we mean simply “catastrophic,” then yes, the wave of wildfires that began in Southern California in early September has been apocalyptic. By October 16th, the fires had burned more than eight million acres across twelve states, nearly double the acreage burned by the same time last year. While western North America is accustomed to wildfires, the combination of climate change and more than a century of fire suppression is creating larger, more destructive conflagrations, and this fire season is on track to be the most destructive yet. The consequences, once local, are now regional: friends from Los Angeles to Vancouver can compare dire air-quality data.

The August Complex Fire in Northern California grew to more than a million acres in early October, leading state fire officials to upgrade it from a “megafire” to the state’s first “gigafire.” (While the label is distinctive, the scale of the August Complex is not: four of the state’s five largest-ever fires started in 2020.) So far, the fires have killed thirty-one people in California, and destroyed more than nine thousand structures. In Oregon, more than four thousand homes have burned; in September, one massive fire levelled hundreds of homes and businesses in the small towns of Talent and Phoenix, near the California line, while another threatened the outer suburbs of Portland. Tens of thousands of Oregonians were forced to evacuate, and almost two thousand are still displaced, facing not only personal upheaval but also increased risk of transmitting or contracting the coronavirus. In north-central Washington State over Labor Day weekend, Jake and Jamie Hyland and their one-year-old son, Uriel, were trapped by the fast-moving Cold Springs Fire. Forced to abandon their vehicle and run overland for nearly a mile, the Hylands were severely burned. Uriel did not survive.

For the rest of us, fortunate in our comparative safety, the fires are a catastrophe of a quieter kind. In a year of lost normality, the fires’ outlandish size and reach are another sign that normal is gone for good. Yet these fires are not the end of the world, or even, for most of us, the end of our world. In the face of complicated threats like climate change, it’s tempting to talk of the apocalypse: Game Over might not be pleasant, but it can seem easier to contend with than seemingly insoluble realities. The religion scholar Timothy Beal, in a history of the Book of Revelation, observes that the apocalypse offers the additional temptation of a clean break with the past. “It is an ending that is also a beginning,” he writes, “an overwhelmingly extravagant new beginning in which death and suffering will be no more.”

But for those of us lucky enough to survive the fires, the pandemic, or any of the other threats we so readily describe as “apocalyptic,” there will be no fresh start. When this fire season ends, the climate will still be changing, the forests will still be suffering from shortsighted management, and millions of people will still be living in harm’s way. In order to reduce the human and environmental toll of future fires, we must consider the past and the present. What the feminist theologian Catherine Keller calls our “apocalypse habit” blinds us to both.

With time, and sustained attention, the apparently apocalyptic can evolve into something else. Three years ago, a fifteen-year-old boy tossed a lit firework into a canyon some thirty miles downriver from my town, setting off a blaze that spread to close to fifty thousand acres and burned for three months. Then as now, heavy smoke trapped us inside for days, and, then as now, the talk was of apocalypse: while only four homes were destroyed by what became known as the Eagle Creek Fire, the canyon where it started was a beloved recreation area, and social media was filled with angry obituaries for it.

As the Eagle Creek Fire died down, though, it turned out that the viral photographs of its hungry orange flames had told only part of the story. Like many wildfires, it burned hot in some places and skipped over others. The canyon was changed forever, but it was far from lifeless. The nonprofit group Friends of the Columbia Gorge, which had been flooded with donations and offers of help, organized hundreds of volunteers to uproot exotic, fast-growing plant species such as Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, and an odiferous European geranium known as Stinky Bob. Other groups led the rebuilding of trails. Three years later, a dedicated corps of about seventy volunteers is still tending to the canyon, after reorganizing into small groups in order to continue work through the pandemic. Instead of trying to return the forest to what it was, they’re fostering diversity in the future forest, protecting it as best they can against catastrophes to come.

Pulling weeds can’t rebuild a home, much less bring back a loved one lost to fire. But the practical work of restoration and protection—not only in the woods but also in town halls and state legislatures—can help shield us all from disasters to come, and is all the more urgent in the face of the Trump Administration’s indifference to scientific evidence and blue-state suffering. State and local governments can update building codes and planning policies, as some California legislators are now struggling to do, so that fewer homes are built in fire-prone areas and those that are can better resist the flames. Public agencies and individual homeowners can reduce the risks to existing structures through prescribed burns and other fuel-reduction efforts. Measures at every level can address the inequalities exacerbated by wildfire: in the southern Oregon town of Talent, where the fires decimated the mobile-home parks that make up much of the area’s scarce low-cost housing, city officials have approved an emergency ordinance preventing the parks from being converted into single-family subdivisions, and many of the region’s local officials and community activists emphasize that rebuilding plans must include affordable housing. Meanwhile, emissions reductions—at local, state, and regional scales—will give future generations a far better shot at survival.

This year, after particulate concentrations peaked on September 11th, the smoke shrouded our streets for another six days. When it rained, we wandered into the downpour, masks off, to wave at one another from a pandemic-appropriate distance. The tendrils of the August Complex Fire were already on their way, though, and before the end of the month our sunsets were once again florid with smoke. For now, the sky is blue, but fire season is not yet over: fifty-eight large fires are still burning across the Western states.



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