Smoke Sunrise

It’s happening again.

Our community finds itself engulfed in a layer of smoke so thick that it bumps up against the very top of the air quality index measurement chart. Communities have been destroyed, and dozens have died due to a wildfire season that is unfortunately not unexpected. Climate assessments have largely predicted increasingly bad wildfire seasons in our region of the world. Factors such as wetter springs contribute to an abundance of plant growth, then hotter, drier summers turn that plant growth into a tinderbox of fuel for nightmarish wildfires to burn. This is indisputable, yet on social media platforms it is but one of many narratives that attempt to explain who or what is to “blame” for the wildfires. Here are some thoughts on how you can counter these narratives that seek to hide the role of climate change in this year’s wildfire season.

First, start with what we know. We know that the west coast region is in the tail end of a record setting heat wave, this undoubtedly contributed to abundant dry fuel. Also, a high wind event on Labor Day was a turning point where conditions went from bad to awful and with much destruction done in the following 24 hours, which comes to reason, as wind often contributes to the rapid growth and spread of wildfires. Finally, when we talk about this year’s fire season, we should not limit the scope of our discussions to the western region of the United States. We know that Australia also had a devastating fire season this year, alongside the Amazon, Siberia, and a long list that could just go on. This is not a regional issue, it is a worldwide issue, that our region is particularly vulnerable to.

Next, identify some of the trouble narratives, and consider their flaws. 

Common narratives I have encountered
  • The argument that the fires are the result of the lack of or improper forestry maintenance – Initially this is a persuasive argument, partly because it may not be wholly wrong. It’s certainly possible that improper forestry maintenance has contributed to wildfire growth. It’s very difficult to disprove, and forest management practices are almost always changing. That all said, it does not negate any of what we already know. The combination of the factors listed above, with or without improper forestry maintenance, would still lead to awful fire conditions. On top of this, places like Australia and the Amazon have very different forest maintenance practices from our own, and regardless of those practices, fire seasons are globally devastating. Finally, wildfires across the State burned a variety of environments, from forests in the cascades, to farms and plains across Central and Eastern Washington. Land management practices vary largely across these environments, and pointing to it as a sole cause is a narrow and oversimplified idea. 
  • The argument that this year’s fires are primarily due to arsonists and/or anarchists – The initial start of the fires have been tied to a variety of causes. One fire in California was even started by gender reveal pyrotechnics! We cannot prove exactly how much of a role arsonists played in starting fires this year, nor do I think we should even attempt to. Arsonists are not a new phenomenon. That said, the origin of the fire is just one element of the circumstances necessary to lead to the kinds of mega fires we experienced this week. It takes heat, fuel, wind and yes, an initial spark to destroy hundreds of thousands of acres with wildfires. This argument has many similarities with the above narrative, as it is nearly impossible to easily disprove and does not mutually exclude Climate Change as a cause. 

Stay healthy my friends. Our air quality is hovering around “Hazardous” and it looks as though it won’t be changing anytime soon. Air quality isn’t the only thing that is hazardous, as online misinformation and hyper partisanship becomes more dangerous with each passing day. These narratives aren’t comprehensive, nor will they be going away any time soon. Being ready with the information that we know, and being honest about what we don’t know can go a long way in stopping the spread of misinformation. If you have encountered other flawed narratives please feel free to send them to info@350Spokane.org, and i’ll add them here as I deem appropriate.

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