One of my students told me that North Central Washington has five seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer and smoke season.
For those of us who live here for the seasonal beauty and bounty of our natural landscapes, smoke season is a poke in the eye. It has been particularly frustrating this year, when spending time outside is less risky for COVID-19 infection than sharing space inside. For the essential workers who must labor outside, smoke season is damaging to their health and their bottom line.
Of course, smoke comes with fire and we cannot forget the people who have lost homes, businesses, animals, or even loved ones to the wildfires that have ravaged the West.
This is the most active fire year on record for the West Coast. Now, the average number of square miles burned annually in Washington, Oregon and California is six times greater than it was from 1950 to 2000. The U.S. Forest Service recognizes that the wildland fire management environment has really changed over the last few decades. Not only are fires larger, but their behavior is more extreme, and more people live in vulnerable wildland areas.
A legacy of fire suppression has created a “fire debt” in terms of forest fuels, best paid back through controlled burns instead of out-of-control blazes. Then there are the wind-stoked firestorms that start as brush fires and end up destroying entire communities.
It is important that we recognize the role of climate change in our vulnerability to wildfire here in our region. We live in an arid climate, but the reduction in snowpack — our water reservoir — and gradually increasing night-time temperatures are further desiccating our landscapes. As summers grow hotter, moisture evaporates from plants and soils, creating spark-ready terrain. There is a strong correlation between higher temperatures and more acres burned.
In response to this reality, Chelan County is creating a climate resilience strategy. Working with climate scientists, natural resource agencies and local stakeholders, they are preparing for hotter, drier, smokier summers. This plan includes improving fire resiliency in our landscapes, coordinating recovery programs, and promoting fire-adapted communities.
Will this be enough? It is vital to plan for climate resiliency, but my students and other young people would say that we must do more. Our home is on fire, and they point out that adults are ignoring the urgency that climate scientists are demanding. They want the same benefits of healthy ecosystems that their parents have enjoyed.
We must realize that the costs of wildfire damage — hazardous air quality, droughts, lost harvests, rebuilding after natural disasters and forced migrations — will greatly exceed the cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Our counties are well positioned to lead the necessary transition to renewable energy and electrification. It will not be simple, but 2020 has shown us that dealing with crises is made easier if we work together and are willing to sacrifice some comfort for the safety of others.
Joan Qazi is a geography professor at Wenatchee Valley College and is the board secretary of Sustainable Wenatchee, a nonprofit that promotes a culture of environmental stewardship and social sustainability.