A week ago, the sky above Seattle turned hazy, and an eerie orange sunlight fell across our hardwood floors. The air smelled burnt, toasted. Yesterday, we had the worst air quality for a twenty-four-hour period in recorded history.
Almost exactly a year ago, Arline and I were camping with friends in a forest service campground near Mount Rainier when we noticed a brown haze high above our Eurovan. A construction worker from the highway came through and said smoke from British Columbia fires was coming our way. The camp host had been that morning to Yakima, east of us, and said it wasn’t possible to see ahead more than a city block, the smoke was so thick. It was over ninety degrees next to our river, and we were hot and irritable. We headed to Packwood for the air-conditioned Mountain Goat Coffee and Bakery, where we researched the fires online. Could we find somewhere else to go, less hazy? Even the beaches looked bad.
Arline was six weeks out from cancer surgery, and the smoky air worried her. We decided to cut short the trip. Our friends stayed but we packed up and headed to Seattle. I was so exhausted emotionally and physically from coping with the cancer, and so in need of a vacation, that I cried as we left the campground.
But as we traveled home, the air got worse. Enumclaw sat under a dirty haze. On the approach to Seattle, we couldn’t see the skyscrapers; it was as if the city was socked in with fog, orange instead of white.
That night, we got online again. The dot over Seattle was bright red: unhealthy for all. But Mount Rainier had some of the best air in the state. Our friends texted that it wasn’t bad. The next morning, we packed again and returned.
This year, we took into account the possibility of forest fire smoke when planning our August vacation with our friends. Instead of the Cascades, we’re going to a tiny island in British Columbia, 170 miles northwest of here, as the crow flies. There’s no guarantee it, too, won’t be in the path of smoke, but we’re hoping.
And so we begin to adapt. It’s a sickening feeling, remembering the years and years of Seattle summers, when heat didn’t climb until after Fourth of July, and for two glorious months the sky was almost always the purest blue. Where will these changes take us? How will we adapt? For how long?
When I returned from that trip last year, something kept bugging me. Although the campground was stiflingly hot, and the sky never turned fully blue again, at night campers all around us built fires in their pits and sat around them, roasting marshmallows. The entire state was under a burn ban but not the national forests; they were guided by federal policy.
Finally, I called the ranger’s office in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and asked why there was no burn ban in the national forest campgrounds. The man who answered said that campfires were perfectly safe. The trees were difficult to ignite, and it was extremely unlikely a campfire would start a fire in the forest. Also, he said, the forest service has a different mission than the state parks and serves a different constituency; “we serve the people,” he said. The people want campfires. They call him up and ask if they can have a campfire, and if they can’t, they won’t go camping. I was so astounded I just said, “Well, now I understand the reasoning.”
I get that the forest service is involved in commerce and industry in ways that state parks are not. But surely there is a general consensus on when a burn ban is a good idea. And you can’t tell me there’s a huge difference between people who camp in forests owned by the national government and those who camp in forests owned by the state. Perhaps most significantly, burn bans “serve the people,” too.
What I heard from the ranger was an ideological bias against regulation, a willingness to risk our trees and our health. Because as long as campers can have the same camping experience they’ve always had, they’ll be happy. They’ll ignore the orange skies, the burning forests, and the warming planet. They’ll adapt.