Western wildfires continue to darken Idaho skies

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Poor Butte County, California is on fire again, its smoke choking the air of states miles away.

Nestled in the Northern Sierras, Butte County is home to Chico State University, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and portions of two national forests. Almost half of its 220,000 inhabitants live in the Chico metro. Over the past four years, the county is now notorious for recurring wildfires.

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Char Miller

This summer, the Dixie Fire burned down over 559,000 acres of pines, cedars and firs, 1,000 homes and sank deep into neighboring Plumas County.

Last year, the lightning-lit Bear Fire merged with others to become the Fire at the 318,000-acre north complex. It left 16 dead, 100 wounded and burned down several towns.

In 2018, the 150,000-acre campfire was a holocaust: 85 people died, the famous town of Paradise was engulfed in flames, and more than 18,000 structures burned down. It was the deadliest and most destructive hell in California history.

Sadly, these almost annual fires in Butte County are now part of the larger pattern of the West of the 21st century. A new problem is that these three fires even re-burned some areas burned earlier. And it will happen again.

This is one of the lessons of the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, containing some of the most terrible warnings this United Nations has ever issued.

By the end of the century, the planet may have warmed by 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit. A warmer Earth will trigger “progressively serious, secular and, in some cases, irreversible consequences.”

Wild forest fires are a leading indicator. By now, every Westerner knows that our weather-induced drought, combined with soaring temperatures (Portland hit 113 degrees in June), has prolonged fire seasons and accelerated the intensity of the fires. The UN report on climate change adds that these factors can double the potentially burnable areas.

Butte County’s heartbreaking experience underscores this prediction. To date, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise reports that more than 39,590 fires nationwide have burned 3.7 million acres. Of the 108 major fires that burned in mid-August, Montana led the pack with 25, Idaho had 21, Oregon and Washington each had 14, and California had 11.

The extent of these wildfires is also evident in their plumes of smoke. Particles from the 410,000-acre Bootleg Fire, which still sweeps through Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest, first spilled into western Washington, Nevada, Idaho and Western Canada. Montana, producing some of the worst air quality index readings in the country.

It then headed east to darken the New England skies before drifting over Europe. Western fires have a very long range. Their scope will soon be amplified. The remarkably hot and dry conditions from the Rockies to the Cascades sucked moisture from the soil and dried out chaparral and sage, pine, oak and balsam.

As in the past, California could suffer the most damage; traditionally, its mega-fires break out between August and November. However, this tradition has been badly sung: major fires are now breaking out every month of the year.

Since January 2021, more than 6,272 fires have burned 917,000 acres in California. Climate change is the root cause of these early burns, according to CAL FIRE, the state firefighting agency: to severe forest fires. These factors increased the fire season in the Sierras by 75 days.

There is no easy solution to this crisis exacerbated by man-made climate change. But there are three interventions that we can implement right now:

  • Accelerate the careful reintegration of fire into the landscape, as the indigenous fire managers have long practiced. It brings important cultural, ecological and forestry benefits.
  • Radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible. Over time, this should mitigate some of their generative impact on western wildfires.
  • Adopt stringent limitations on new housing in fire zones. States with sprawling foothills and canyon developments would do well to copy California, which this spring participated in a lawsuit challenging the construction of a massive subdivision. The homes are slated for a high severity fire area in frequently burnt Lake County.

However effective these and other strategies may be, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear about the consequences of continued inaction. The rising generation will bear the heavy burdens resulting from our indecision.

As the UN Intergovernmental Panel put it bluntly, “Life on Earth can recover from drastic climate change by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems. Humans can’t.

Char Miller contributes to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.com, a nonprofit dedicated to sparking lively conversation about the West. He is a writer and professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont, California.


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