Even though they are more than a hundred miles away, smoke from more than 500 fires in British Columbia and others burning in eastern Washington has clouded our skies during the third week of August and has prompted the Island County Sheriff to declare a burn ban starting Aug. 20. Our air is unhealthy to breath. These sites showed the extent of fires in the American and Canadian West. They reflect a sobering wall of flame and smoke.

Usually our island’s July and August weather is seductive. Its mild summer temperatures and mostly sunny skies, along with jaw-dropping views of the Olympic and Cascade ranges, creates a magnet for visitors and acts as a scenic backdrop for memorable weddings and family reunions. However the first two weeks of August has seen a continued reduction in air visibility and health quality to the extent that water and mountains are blotted out and in this third week; the sun appears only as a tragic yellowish-brown smudge in the sky. These days locals say they have headaches and their throats feel scratchy. On Facebook, landscaper friends say they have to work with a wet bandana over their nose and are using a respirator while working outside. There’s a noticeable crease of tension between eyebrows and a squinting of the eyes, as if to keep the bad air at a distance by frowning and squinting at it. There’s a feeling of lethargy in the air. An asthmatic otter at the Seattle Aquarium is having to use an inhaler.

Photo by David Welton

It is easy to take for granted our clean air and postcard vistas and miss these qualities most when they are absent.

Summer fires are nothing new. Fire has cleared away deadwood and made way for new growth for millennia; however in the past decade we are experiencing megafires of intensity, ferocity, and devastating cost to natural resources and homes.

“‘Once in a generation’” fires are quickly becoming ‘once a year’ fires as our climate gets drier and hotter,” writes Governor Jay Inslee in a constituent email. “In fact, my home state has the worst air quality in the country right now thanks to wildfire smoke. In the past week, air quality in Seattle ranked worse than that in Beijing…Our skies may be smoky, but the science is clear. Just like we saw with the terrible fires last year, climate change greatly increases the chance of fires.”

As an antidote to forest fires our current presidential administration advocates harvesting more National Forest trees, as proposed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Our governor opposes the idea on the basis that while thinning some trees is good; but clear-cutting for short term-profit, as proposed by Zinke, robs Americans of an important resource providing oxygen, grazing land and lumber spread across the 190 million acres comprising 8.5 percent of the country. Governor Inslee invites us to sign a petition on behalf of the National Forests. A similar plan to clear-cut National Forests was proposed by Idaho senator Walden Heyburn following the 1910 Big Burn in Idaho and Montana. But the idea wasn’t supported then. Then popular orator and former president Theodore Roosevelt took to the railroads and rallied the American public to oppose the clear-cutting that would only profit a few and steal the people’s resource.

Photo by David Welton

Creating a plan to create healthy managed forests is another proposal. Hillary Franz, Washington State’s Commissioner for Public Lands, writes that 85 percent of the state’s wildfires are caused by people and that the state has spent more than $1 billion of taxpayer money on fire fighting over the last decade; yet fires persist. She worked to help create the state’s 20-year Forest Health Plan, which sets a goal of restoring more than a million acres of state forest to health, building fire resilience and better protecting our communities from wildfires. Check here for more on the Department of Natural Resource’s Forest Health Program.

What can we do here on Whidbey?

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson phoned in response to this question and said our current wildfires are “The result of a bad land-use management.” She added that 90 percent of Whidbey’s forests are privately owned and suggests that these owners can learn to practice forest stewardship through forest planning services of the Whidbey Island Conservation District https://www.whidbeycd.org/forest-planning.html. Collectively, Price Johnson, adds, we who value Whidbey’s natural resources can take steps to care for them. “If we want a different future we need to make healthier choices,” she said. “We can start by talking to our neighborhood homeowner’s groups, our book club, our faith-based group. There’s lots of opportunities, even being good stewards in your own back yard.”


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