On the west side of Spokane where I live, the Houston Fire was growing fast. The gate that keeps the world at bay in Erika and Andrea Zaman’s rural lane would do them no good if the flames crept across a nearby field of weeds. Erika, away on business in Seattle, said later, “It was a very scary ordeal. I felt panic knowing that my children were not in a safe place and I was a flight away.” It was August 2015.
From our house I watched the white smoke surge. Luckily no wind was blowing. Wind causes fires to grow legs. Those legs vault rivers, roads, even lakes, as they did in 2014 when the shores of Fishtrap Lake burned. Wind also causes fires to roar hotter.
Erika and Andrea live near Palisades Park. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps carved our city’s largest urban common from a vast plat of rimrock, pines and shrub-steppe. Beneath its dog-hair ponderosa pines, heavy duff and scrub brush burgeon, furnishing tinder for fires. Dumb luck might shove the flames away from the women’s home, we hoped—might sacrifice a portion of the park and leave the human community whole. With only one perimeter road for the hardhats to enter and kindle backfires, Palisades could become a Spokane County conflagration for the ages.
I helmeted up and motorcycled out to see what I could see. Soon I hit a roadblock. Red fire repellant tiger-striped the traffic-control car parked catawampus in the road to stymie residents from going home. Stamping horses in trailers and truck windows smeared by dogs queued up behind the roadblock. Homeowners shuffled, slouched and regarded their smart phones. They’d been hustled out of their homes.
Through an opening made by the road, we could glimpse the fire. It crawled like a glow-worm through the understory. It ate the August-dry tinder. When it hit a tree, it nibbled at the needles and devoured the crown in a feast of flames. A small plane began to buzz above the horizon. We had seen such planes douse fires in McCall, Idaho, twenty years earlier. This plane extruded a red rooster tail of slurry above the burn and turned.
We homeowners ought to reckon better. When we live amid coniferous forests in the arid West, we take risks ecologists have warned about for decades. Actuaries have calculated those risks, even if clients residing on the piney margins have not. Ponderosa forests evolved with fire. Some trees not only withstand it, they grow taller and stronger.
Earlier that same week, a brisk wind bent the branches of the tall pines in the yard of our Spokane home. I had a hallucination that flames were galloping down our street. In such an event, there would be little for me to do. Climb a ladder with a puny garden hose. Wet the structure down from atop the roof and hope or pray for the best.
When the fire flared across Grove Road where Andrea and Erika live, two of the couple’s three kids were with a sitter at home. Erika was in Seattle. The sitter and kids watched the fire from indoors. Local authorities brushed aside the possibility the blaze could vault the asphalt of Grove Road—until it did. Andrea, fetching one son from the airport, blasted back home, scooped up the sitter and other kids and spirited them away.
They had to evacuate until hotshot firefighters and planes could turn the fiery tide. So did some fifty other residents near the burn. The babysitter’s mother took the women in for dinner. They were luckier than many in Eastern Washington. They got clearance to return home that same day. They crept back in, breathed a sigh of relief and offered public thanks to the firefighters. Kept the windows closed. Ran the AC. Tried to get some sleep.
Columbia Plateau wildfires upwind of us have hit Spokane and surrounding communities hard. In mammalian heads like ours, smell and taste entwine so far that we feel as if we are ingesting smoke. Airborne cinders lodge in nostrils. Tar from burnt pine pitch won’t wash out. To gain relief we rinse in rivers, bathe ourselves in lakes. At home we use a nasal-irrigation solution—a neti pot that feels, at first gurgle, a little bit like waterboarding might. Soon its salty-warm emulsion becomes a soothing relief.
Two years of summer fires caused our throats to catch, our eyes to stream, our lungs to cough up stuff. The Columbia Plateau turned to murk for weeks. Visibility fell to several hundred yards. “Apocalyptic,” one friend muttered, peering out his window. His only frame of reference for what he saw was the legendary termination of the world.
Wood-smoke seeps through household screens and panes. Composed of invisible aerosols freighted with carbon, it carries nitrogen particles suspended by the billions. It settles as a film on furniture indoors. Several hours west of us in Winthrop, friends watched hillside flames creep nearer by the hour. They freaked when embers drifted from cloudless skies. Bundling pets and most precious possessions, they left behind their wood-frame home. The Evergreen State seemed to have been ironically named.
Weltschmertz and low-grade stress swept in with the weather. Murky horizons called to mind humidity’s dimness in the distant Smoky Mountains. Instead of a steamy atmosphere, though, our vistas in the intermountain West proved dusty-dry and toxic. Opaque horizons became the new normal, in a phrase that soon grew wearisome to hear.
I motorcycled through Usk, Chewelah, Kettle Falls and Republic to find relief. On the Spokane Indian Reservation and south to Keller, charred trees met me. As a person who deploys internal combustion for sport, I am part of the problem. I contribute to the conditions I lament. Motor even farther north to try to escape the smoke, and I would cross into British Columbia. I find myself reeling along glacier-fed lakes and streams.
More than 700 Northwest glaciers are shrinking fast, says scientist Mauri Pelto. Every new drought is eroding 5-10 percent of ice-field volumes. Pelto has studied glaciation for three decades on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, the most heavily glaciated snow-peak in the Lower 48. He has measured the ice fields of Glacier National Park. Extinct ancient forests have come to light as sheets of ancient ice pull back. Pelto says climate change is dissolving the signature glaciers of the Northwest fast, making them punier than at any time in the last 4,000 years.
Glaciers are ecologically essential. They balance out droughts. They function as storage reservoirs for in-stream flows in the hottest months of the year, when sea-run fish are at risk, most in need of chilly water to fin up inland rivers to spawn. University of Washington researcher Wendell Tangborn dubs glaciers the canaries in the climate-change coalmine. He ties their changing fate to droughts and fires. The “mass balance” of glaciers—a reliable gauge of their health—measures the annual variation between growth from snow and shrinkage from global warmth. For the first time in recorded history, Tangborn says, that balance has shifted to the negative.
Climate disruption is a kind of ice age in reverse. Exhalations from our industry diminish even those regions least inhabited by people. Our commercial exhalations are corroding the rivets on the voyaging spaceship Earth. As the planet warms, as the ice caps liquefy at greater rates, weird weather is likely to be more and more the norm.
A week after the Houston Fire calmed down, I motorcycled out Grove Road again to the 60-acre burn site. Scent of ash and phosphates fouled the air. Slumping barbed wire reminded me of a guitar widowed of everything but its strings, the working frets of cedar fence posts long gone. One barn had vanished; another stood scorched. Bulldozer-carved fire-lines scarred the land. Orange-clad convicts, making certain the embers were dead, stamped their boots on grass clumps and tree roots, mopping up the mess.
Blighted trees and grasslands stretched as far as I could see. On both sides of rural Grove Road, chemicals from the phosphate flame retardant painted the gravel and the fields red. Invasive weeds and grasses, wakened by the shock of flames, fed on the fertilizing phosphates, stabbing through the ash to rally stronger than before.
Paul Lindholdt is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University and the winner of a Washington State Book Award for In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau.