Americans have looked down our noses at the Chinese, whose dirty air we’ve seen on television — dreary gray and brown, shrouding ugly streets in a kind of sickly twilight. How disheartening it is to find ourselves dealing with such ugly air here in the Pacific Northwest this August.
Forest-fire smoke surrounds us. Even the Pacific Ocean, which ordinarily can be counted on for pure breezes, is instead delivering thick fumes as the atmosphere capriciously curves smoke into Western Washington and Oregon from the raging fires in British Columbia and east of the Cascades. (For the time being, conditions are expected to be better the rest of this week.)
As a result of fires, air-quality monitoring systems in the two states have classified conditions as unhealthy across many thousands of square miles of the Pacific Northwest. This comes with warnings about limiting the amount of time spent outdoors and curbing physical activities that might cause us to breathe in more smoke. It’s a little like being stuck in a smoky tavern with no exit — although diluted forest fire chemicals aren’t as injurious as tobacco smoke, thankfully.
It’s possible our region hasn’t suffered such persistently bad air — especially in non-urban areas — since the catastrophic Oregon North Coast burns of the 1930s and ‘40s, during which much of the Coast Range went up in smoke.
Aside from being grateful for clean-air rules that began curbing industrial air pollution in the 1970s, what should be our response to forest fires and the smoke they cause? If the past several years are anything to go by, developing better strategies will become vital as our continent’s climate changes. And although it’s safe to say that almost everyone is against smoke, dealing with underlying issues will be extremely tricky.
It rushes us headlong into controversies over forest thinning, timber harvests, under-story maintenance, controlled burns and how (or even whether) to regulate residential building within the Pacific Northwest’s forest interface. All these subjects have evoked expensive lawsuits and destructive political battles. To say that there is little trust would be an understatement. Circumstances may force the combatants to overcome these differences, or at least spur less-polarized middle-of-the-road citizens to begin mandating smarter decisions.
So when it comes to avoiding dangerously destructive forest fires and the harms they create, what might smarter management look like?
Many solutions are likely to entail seeking and following the advice of professional forest managers, rather than either acquiescing to decisions forced by environmental lawsuits on the one hand, or back-room industry manipulations on the other. Forest policies should be made on a time scale of multiple decades or centuries, and not change with presidential administrations. Neither the environment nor industry are well served by a tangled-up political mess in which strategic decisions are so hard to make and stick with.
Foresters aren’t guaranteed to agree with one another, of course. While there was disagreement within the agency, National Forest Service policies notoriously favored harvest over all other options during much of the 20th century. The same was true of state forestry agencies in the Pacific Northwest. Only with generational change in personnel was there a gradual shift to more balance between harvest, thinning, conservation and other options. Moving forward in the 21st century, we should insist on carefully designed consensus-based management groups, with mechanisms to protect against political and judicial manipulation.
The answers won’t be easy to make or accept. Additional harvest is likely in many cases to be the most affordable way to control fire risk, while providing a useful economic boost to rural areas. Thinning will be more environmentally palatable in other places, but tends to be expensive. Prescribed burns — never popular — will sometimes be the right way to go.
We in the Northwest don’t want to have to get used to having dangerous air. Nobody should have to become good at wearing filtration masks, or interpreting air-quality warnings. We must get ahead of the fires before they get ahead of us.