Cutting Through the Wildfire Haze

Hazy sky above the Yakima River

Hazy sky above the Yakima River

Example of multiple photo blog post

Example of multiple photo blog post

1. Bird Omen

Today I saw the Summer’s first bald eagle. With power and grace in its beating wings, it flew over the river and alit on a pine, bending the branch with its weight. Perhaps the fierce bird was returning to build a breeding nest. Or perhaps it flew to escape from the smoke-laden air of our one-hundred-wildfire summer. 

Up in Canada, more than a million acres are burning. Over in Yakima, a few thousand more. At the same time, the Pacific has decided to stop whistling its windsong our way. Now the sky is flat, low and silent. The air smells funny and catches in your throat. 

The sky over Thorp is all bleached with haze.

With exception of Geoffrey, who lived for a while in Beijing, none of us at Spoon Full have ever lived with an extended period of hazardous air. We’ve taken our deep, healthy breaths for granted. The haze makes us reflect on how universal and crucial air is for health and productivity. No matter your politics, you need clean air, clean water, and good food. Part of the reason why we’re farmers is to help provide these fundamental needs for all people. 

Two weeks ago, I wrote that although the wind was causing havoc, we might miss it when it’s gone. Well, for the records I was right and we do miss the wind. That wind cleans out the ashes and stokes up our fire. But I bet that the smokejumpers are grateful. They curse the wind a whole lot more than we do. A strong wind would spread the wildfires even further out of control on these 102-degree days. 

2. Old Thor

Two weeks ago, I also wrote that we can never stop the wind, and we shouldn’t want to. The wise course is to live with it, to adjust to it. 

My limited understanding of forest ecology tells me that wildfire is as natural as the wind. In the old woods and prairies, fires were sparked by lightning, like the ones up in Canada this year, and they’d typically burn at a mellow heat and wouldn’t spread all too far. The fires were pretty regular, so they precluded the buildups of big fuel reserves (old logs and dead brush), which lead to the big fires that cause thick haze for four-hundred miles. 

The fires were resets for the landscape. New beginnings of the nutrient cycle and ecosystem succession. Because they set the stage for good hunting grounds and plenty of game animals and birds, those mellow wildfires were good for humanity. 

Nowadays we try to keep wildfire from happening at all. Old Smokey the Bear points out from a poster that says: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” 

I’ve always had a hazy feeling that Old Smokey’s slogan was horseshit. For a while I thought it was because he misused the word ‘only.’ How could “Only YOU” refer to each of the millions of people who read Smokey’s posters? 

Only today, while I looked up at this cloudless sky, bleached as white as an old cowboy’s grandpa’s blue jeans, did I realize the real horseshit aspect of Old Smokey’s Commandment: I actually cannot prevent wildfires. Neither can you, nor any of those millions who have read Old Smokey’s life. I’ll grant the old bear that I am able to not start a wildfire, personally, by being smart while camping. But beyond that, humans can’t prevent wildfires. 

There’s another legendary character, far older than Smokey Bear, who has the last word on wildfires. His name is Thor, and he doesn’t negotiate. I’ll bet humanity will be able to control lightning right around the time when we learn to control the wind, and that’ll be around the same time we learn to fly by flapping our bare arms. Old Thor doesn’t negotiate with humans. Humans can’t prevent wildfires.

3. The Big Big Wildfire

We could make wildfire a whole lot easier to deal with, though, if we managed our wildlands better. Maybe we let some low-level fires burn a little more often. Maybe we thin the trees in our timberlands, instead of clearcutting. We can choose to lessen the pain caused by forces we can’t fully control. There’s a lot of power in that. 

Upon reflection, I realize that there’s also a lot of power in Old Smokey’s admonition. Not in its content, but in its delivery. That old bear knew how to influence people. To be fair, his words probably have prevented plenty of wildfires. They just can’t prevent them all. 

These fire seasons seem to be getting worse, as the globe gets hotter. Climate change itself isn’t so unlike a wildfire. Like a wildfire, we’ll only know exactly how bad climate change could get after it really starts to burn. Like wildfires, climate change can cause less pain than it has to, if we adjust our land management strategies. 

The main difference between a wildfire and climate change is the scale of the problem. We can imagine a wildfire, and we know the concrete steps we can take so as not to start one. I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe I can imagine what climate change will look like. But I do know that there are a few concrete steps we can each take to slow down the heat-up, and at the same time adapt to it. We can each help balance our earth’s climate. 

For you, that might mean eating local foods, composting and recycling, and riding a bike. For us at Spoon Full Farm, it means that we practice Whole Earth Farming (LINK), which absorbs carbon dioxide into the soil, to fight climate change. We provide awesome food for this local region, so trucks and trains don’t have to burn oil to bring food 2,000 miles to your plate. 

4. Only You Can

That one eagle who flew by today prompted this whole meditation. When we’re trying to solve problems like wildfire and climate change, we’re probably better off taking advice from an eagle than a bear. Hardly any view is broader than that of the eagle’s eye. Let’s call that first eagle Windy.

We know what Smokey the Bear says. Windy the Eagle would say: “Only YOU can impede climate change.” 

Thanks Old Smokey, for showing us how to address a collective action dilemma: treat every person you’re talking to as if he or she is the only person who makes choices that matter. Cut through the haze of the collective to the clarity of each individual, and break down the problem into smaller solutions, because we all need each individual to choose right.

Let’s print a poster with sharp-eyed Windy the Eagle pointing a wing, and telling us, one by one: “Only YOU can impede climate change,” and post it in every grocery store and restaurant.

Minh Nguyen