The term “global warming” sounded benign when ﬁrst introduced in the 1970’s, conjuring a fantasy in which the earth would gently transform to a pleasant 75 degrees F from pole to pole. Everywhere, life would be a beach.
However, climate change scientists warned it would not be like that. Left unchecked, in the long run global warming would create a lethal combination of deforestation, acidiﬁcation, pollution, starvation, infection, radiation, eutrophication, desertiﬁcation, and, ultimately, extinction.
Luckily, the projected timeframes were vague and distant, at least a few generations, leaving plenty of time for mankind to pull off a miracle with heroic technologies like carbon capture. No worries. In the meantime, recycle, keep car tires properly inﬂated, plant trees, eat fewer ﬂatulent bovines, caulk the windows, install energy-efﬁcient light bulbs, join the Sierra Club.
In the short run, though, adverse death events were inevitable. They would be more frequent, extreme, unpredictable, long-lasting, record-setting and destructive. The particulars would depend on variables such as the latitude and topology of where you lived.
Especially ominous was their prediction that the western US, where my family lived, was doomed to severe droughts, maybe not as dramatic as hurricanes and tornados, but equally concerning because they would lead to uncontrollable wildﬁres.
Our beaches were the high country. Over decades skiing, hiking and trail running up there, I had noticed subtle, yet unmistakable, changes underway. Snows fell later in the fall, melted earlier in the spring. More aspen were blighted, bogs dried up, wildﬂowers fewer, trails dustier, streamﬂows weaker, reservoirs lower. Not everywhere in every year, but in more places, more years.
In 2002 my wife and I lived in a mountain cabin, surrounded by forest. That summer a jilted wife started the largest wildﬁre in Colorado history. The Front Range trees were so dry that mountain dwellers were advised to have valuables packed and be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Also, we were instructed to create “defensible space” by removing trees within 50 feet of houses, like the trees right outside our windows where we enjoyed watching camp robbers, juncos and chickadees dart among the branches.
One afternoon, an ear-splitting crack and instant ﬂash from lightening shook the windows. I grabbed a shovel and ambled down a steep slope to ﬁnd a ﬁre spreading in a tangle of fallen beetle-killed lodgepole at the edge of a clearing. I was frantically tamping ﬂames when a forest service tanker truck came bouncing across the ﬁeld. Four wildland ﬁreﬁghters, a team of several patrolling along mountain highways for just such events, jumped out, deployed a hose, and snuffed it.
From then on, ﬁre and smoke entwined with our lives like sun, wind, rain, and snow. Global warming was no longer a threat unique to remote places life the Great Barrier Reef or Arctic.
A year later, my job took us across the Continental Divide to an area in western Colorado where occurred many of the worst ﬁres in state history, including the deadliest – the South Canyon (aka Storm King) Fire in 1994, which killed 12 hot shots and two heli-crew. Storm King Mountain was just a few miles from where we lived. Each day driving to work, I passed the nondescript low ridge where the lightning ignited it. Several times I trekked up the steep, switch-backed trail to the blackened expanse where white crosses dot the mountainside, marking where each ﬁre ﬁghter perished in ﬂames so hot rocks cracked.
When we drove out of Colorado in June 2012, two ﬁres were burning nearby. As we drove along under smoke spread far into Utah from those ﬁres, I felt a sense of relief. We were moving to Oregon to be closer to our family, and eagerly anticipated the lush green of the Paciﬁc Northwest. Colorado seemed to be drying out and burning up. In short span of time between Storm King and the day we departed, Colorado had endured 30 of the largest ﬁres in its history.
As if arranged by the chamber of commerce, we rolled into Bend mid-morning in a light, refreshing rain. By afternoon the clouds broke and moved away, exposing the ragged, glaciered, volcanic peaks of the Cascades gleaming under a bluebird sky.
However, within a month of our arrival, ﬁres burned across Oregon, too. Some were controlled burns, some caused by lightning. Most were unintentionally started by humans being careless with vehicles, machines, ﬁrearms, ﬁreworks, cigarettes, and campﬁres.
Last summer set new records for ﬁre in parts of the West. The frequency of ﬁres was not unusual. But due to the extremely low humidity and high temperatures day after day, once a ﬁre started, it seemed impossible to extinguish. Long-time Oregonians said they had never seen a ﬁre season like it. But the danger with ﬁres is not just the ﬂames.
Due to our latitude and topology, smoke ﬂowed in from Oregon ﬁres, as well as those in British Columbia, Washington, and California. Instead of dissipating after a few days, the smoke pooled low and thickened. No more breath-taking views of the Cascades. The sun glowed dully behind strange hues of grey, brown, salmon, and orange. The rank smell of smoke was omnipresent, whether outside or in. Local TV broadcasts opened with ﬁre reports and satellite images of smoke converging on the region.
At ﬁrst the smoke was just a stinky annoyance, but after a couple weeks, it morphed into a serious health threat, bringing normal life to a halt across halt in the western two-thirds of Oregon. Air quality warnings vacillated between “Unhealthy” and “Very Unhealthy.” Wood smoke is heavy with toxic particulates and carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde. It burned our nasal passages, throats, and upper chests. Some friends had to seek medical attention. For those not well or older, prolonged exposure can be life-threatening, inducing asthma and heart irregularities.
As conditions worsened, health authorities warned everyone, including children, to remain indoors. All outdoor activities were canceled. Sidewalks and parks emptied. People wore N94 masks like you see in the most polluted cities in Asia.
With no relief in sight, we longed to escape, even if only for a few days. We ﬂed over Santiam Pass in a long 15 mph procession behind a pilot car that lead us through miles of ﬁre. We passed groups of blackened ﬁreﬁghters, gulping water, sharpening chains saws, grabbing a few minutes of rest before going back onto the ﬁre lines above. Tanker trucks inched along in the opposite lane, dousing ﬂames approaching the highway.
Within a half hour after leaving that ﬁre, we skirted another near Detroit Lake, a beautiful reservoir usually populated with boats, was almost hidden in the smoky murk. Descending into the Willamette Valley, we headed northwest for a couple hours through more smoke, hanging ghostlike between the rows in orchards and vineyards.
At last, as we neared the coast, the smoke vanished. We had driven hundreds of miles to the Paciﬁc Ocean for a breath of fresh air. The rolling waves glistened under a clear, sunny, blue sky. The temperature was a pleasant 75 degrees. Life was a beach.