The weather was hot and smoky in Yakima Canyon, Washington in July. The Bureau of Land Management has placed small red flags on top of the piles of rocks in the fire rings where my friends and I are camping, indicating a burn ban. Instead of grilling meat, we brought popsicles in the cooler. Although there are “No Campfire” signs on nearly every flat surface, we can still smell ash in the air. Despite the heat and the ban, someone has a fire going at the campsite.
Next morning, while floating down the Yakima River, a thin column of smoke can be seen on the horizon. My boyfriend, Thomas, who was a wildland firefighter for more than three decades, told me there was no lightning last night, suggesting a person would have started it.
When we return to cell-service range, we check the interagency fire map and learn that the fire, probably caused by a spark from a car, burned 5,000 acres in four hours, ripping through dry grass and sage.
Wildfires are natural and necessary for ecosystem cycles, but according to the past 20 years of U.S. According to the Forest Service, 85 percent of the damage is caused by humans. In campfires, we leave the fires blazing. As we smoke, light fireworks, and dispose of waste, we are careless. Even before a spark is thrown, we create hotter, drier, more dangerous conditions by burning fossil fuels and managing land. Those imbalances eventually catch up to us, since we have tipped the scales hard and fast.
After our weekend in Yakima Canyon, it stayed hot, and the fires kept sizzling. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources closed all public lands in the eastern part of the state a week later. There have been more than 900 fires burning across Washington by mid-July, and the DNR, which also manages lands, was stretched thin. There aren’t enough rangers to oversee the illegal campfires and manage current burns. Playing by the rules was not the rule on public land.
“Keeping the public safe is our number one priority. If there were a fire, we would be past the education point,” says Laurie Benson, acting division manager at the DNR. “We value the use of our lands for recreation. We want people to be out there, but we have to keep people on our lands safe.” The DNR does not take closures lightly. The agency never closed such huge areas before last year. But in the past nine months, it’s done so twice due to the intense fire danger. “It was a difficult decision. While Benson acknowledged there was a lot to consider, her goal is to have these landscapes available in the future. The DNR will open up again as soon as the fire danger drops, but Benson does not anticipate that happening very soon.
In order to avoid worse losses later, we must give up things we like now. We must make sacrifices if we don’t want to continue suffering.
We’ll have to let go of the forest as a result of climate change: if you can’t stop yourself from lighting a novelty campfire-even if it’s too cold or there’s a burn ban-land managers will shut it down. In order to avoid worse losses later, we must give up things we like now. The sacrifices will only increase if we don’t.
This is the most authoritative and specific climate report ever released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Unsurprisingly, it painted a dark and urgent picture of our future. Climate change will cause more extreme storms on the East Coast, and fires on the West Coast. During the Midwest tornado season, soil moisture will decline. Winter will be less frequent if you love it. We’ve baked in so many emissions that things will get worse in 30 years. Within ten years, we need to curb emissions to zero if we hope for a livable planet.
The most important conclusion of the report was that time is being wasted and action is imperative. Our behavior must change, or we are going to suffer catastrophic consequences. The future will be less harsh if we reduce emissions now or maintain healthy forests. Clearly, there are many areas where we need to do better, as the report explains. In addition to structural changes, personal efforts will have to be taken as part of the effort.
Unless we can collectively change behavior for the greater good, we’re screwed. Going without a fire isn’t such a huge sacrifice to me, since I love sitting around a fire around which I can tell stories and poke flames. Losing access to the outdoors for an entire season is a major blow. For the rest of our lives, this summer could be the best.
Eastern Washington is not the only area suffering from fires. The state of Montana passed a law prohibiting fishing after midafternoon because fish become stressed and fry in the heat. Search and rescue personnel are unable to work in Phoenix because the temperatures are too dangerous to perform rescue operations. I have a new nephew in western Massachusetts breathing in wildfire smoke from the West Coast due to too warm lakes and toxic algae spreading.
Anger, frustration, and grief are all part of my feelings. Feeling ineffective and hamstrung is frustrating to me. I’m upset with the government, with the gas companies, with the bros that throw bean bags by the fire three campsites away.
My thoughts have been focused this summer on the impacts that individual actions can have on public health, and how freedom means being accountable and working toward a greater good. Summers from now on will allow us to sit by smoke-free rivers rather than a campfire. Time is running out to take action.