The Other Washington Burns: An Eyewitness Account

, scientific adviser, Climate and Energy | October 15, 2012, 3:34 pm EDT
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There are two Washingtons – the unrepresented one in the District of Columbia, and the state way out west of the Beltway. Here in DC life is going well: It’s a beautiful fall day, Congress is out of town, and the Nationals had the best record in baseball this year.

In the other Washington, though, things are different. The old quip about Washington’s ball team —  “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League” — used to be about the Senators; now it’s about the Mariners. But more seriously, the landscape is burning up.

This has been a bad year for wildfire in the American West, and Washington state is no exception. Lots of us think of the Pacific Northwest as the rain capital of America, but most of the state is east of the Cascades, and this “eastside” landscape is dry and very vulnerable to fire. Although it hasn’t been dried out as badly as other states by this year’s drought, that hasn’t spared it.

Pipa Elias, a forester who’s a consultant to the UCS Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, now lives in Wenatchee, Washington, and has had a front-row seat for the recent fires. A couple of weeks ago, she sent me this dramatic first-hand report on what’s been going on in the other Washington:

“After watching a lightning storm while I was camping in northern Washington a couple of weekends ago I came home to wildfires burning just outside my town of Wenatchee.

Wildland fire burning near Wenatchee, Washington, September 2012.

My normal view of beautiful sagebrush scrub was burning in front of my eyes. As a forester I understand, respect, and appreciate the role of fire in creating ecosystems. To be honest, knowing that houses were safe, I was at first intrigued and mesmerized by the fire. Now, however, over two weeks later, I’m beginning to understand the toll these fires, which are becoming more likely due to climate change, take on human communities.

Since igniting, over 50,000 acres have burned in the Wenatchee Complex fire alone, and our town is inconveniently located under the heavy smoke from the Table Mountain fire (over 30,000 acres). It has yet to rain in September, which, while not very unusual, is making the fires and smoke even worse.

Smoke from wildland fires extending across Washington state, September 2012. Source: NASA

This smoke has left us literally and figuratively choking. We’re wearing masks when we go outside, in nearby towns schools were closed last week. Waking up to look out at an eerie yellow haze, then checking the weather to see it won’t change anytime soon, takes a mental toll day after day.

Today, several days after the fires caused historically hazardous air quality, the eastern side of the state is still experiencing the negative health impacts of these fires, and Wenatchee is still under air quality hazard warnings.

Weather forecast: Smoky. Week-long forecast from September for Wenatchee, Washington. Source: National Weather Service

It’s also possible that come spring our hills will be choking on cheatgrass, a highly invasive plant native to Europe, southwestern Asia, and northern Africa. This plant loves fire, and seeds both in the spring and the fall, leaving restoration ecologists with a huge task in the next few weeks. How do they restore our native sagebrush ecosystems and lessen the risk that this grass takes over?

Thankfully I know a few of them and they’re smart, talented, and dedicated to ensuring our ecological community recovers. Our social community is also coping well. Local restaurants are offering free meals to people who have had to leave their homes, masks are being handed out for free, and our friends in Seattle and Portland are opening their homes (with fresh, clean air!) to us.

As we all recover from this event we hope to enter a snowy winter during which we can ski and ride the lifts pondering the relationship between naturally ignited wildfires and human-caused climate change — wondering if our community wouldn’t have fared a bit better if global warming weren’t such a threat to our lives every day.”

Pipa’s story shows that climate change not only is having serious impacts on ecosystems and human health, but also is aggravating other problems caused by past human neglect, like the damage to range land from invasive grasses. We didn’t start dealing with cheatgrass till it was widespread and highly damaging. Let’s hope we don’t repeat the story with global warming.

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