The Burning West

The week started out well enough; Monday I set out on on my latest hobby, climbing hills on a bicycle. Fifty miles and 2,600 feet of elevation in the clear early autumn sun. Two stops, one tire change later I returned home showered and, unusually for me, napped. The day was warm for this time of year and bone dry but even from the hill top there was just the smallest haze. I remember looking out on the forested hills and thinking it was about time for some rain. That night the sunset was dark orange and the first reports of fire were on the radio. A fog of smoke started to settle in and within the hour smokey haze dropped a curtain around the view where it has remained more or less ever since.

Air quality 420. It would be funny, but it really isn’t funny at all.

In reality we are quite lucky here in Cottage Grove. The major fires in our region, The Mackenzie Fire to the North and the Glide Fire to the South, have not come this way yet. Our homes and historic bridges are safe. Blue River, Vida, Idylwild have not been so lucky. Further south in the Rogue River the towns of Phoenix, and Talent are destroyed in different fires. Homes have burned, people are missing and some are known dead already, more will be found later some probably won’t be. When complaining about the smoke or tainted honey in the hives that thought sits in the back of my mind that we are the fortunate valley. Currently four of the ten largest fires ever recorded in Oregon are burning right now based on records back to the 1850’s. The fires continue and the nearest evacuation warning is twenty miles north. If the fire jumps the Willamette and heads south, that could change. We keep the cars full of gas and the pets close at hand.

It is hard in the midst of the crisis to step back and consider the larger picture. Most of my day is keeping the doors sealed and getting to and from work, dealing with cranky kids and watching the evacuation notices. But there is a larger picture at play. The idea that climate change will cause forest ecosystems to shift is well known- since as early as the nineteen nineties (or as the kids say “back in the nineteen hundreds.”) Foresters have been replanting cut areas with more heat tolerant trees, but for ecosystems to shift on a large scale fire is part of the process. Trees don’t “move” north; as the climate shifts the stressed trees sicken and die, and the new trees seeds grow in their place. These fires are ebbing of one ecosystem and the incoming of another. We stand here on the edge and watch the water roll in and hope not to be engulfed. The scale of this mocks the philosophy that personal action can save the planet. This is beyond recycling or planting a garden. The world as we know it is shifting and the currents that brought us the up can push us back down just as easily.

All of human civilization has occurred in an unusual period of climate stability following the last great ice age. That in time the climate would change was inevitable, but pushing that change is reckless. Our world depends on agriculture which is essentially being able know when to plant and when to harvest. As the global climate cycle alters this relative certainty will erode, and the excess calories that allow us to do other things besides farm like become scientists and writers will vanish. Of course that will also eradicate the job of “social media influencer”, showing that even the apocalypse has an upside.

As I look out my window and see the upcoming years and the possibility of this “once in a generation” event becoming just “August in the Willamette” I am concerned as any parent of young children should be. Every day we are building the world we leave our children. One of mine is asleep on me as I write this; she fades in and out of sleep like a revolving door asking a question before drifting off. Her questions start with “I have a question”, and sometimes her question is “Do I ask too many questions?”. “No” I always reply “There are never too many questions”. My own questions are more serious and vaguer- what kind of world will she have to grow up in? What place is this we have made and how can we change our course or build a raft to float on these new tides?

The first and foremost answer in my mind is that we must engage our group identity, also known as “The Gub’mint” in facing this issue. That means electing people who see the problem of climate change as real and are willing to enact changes to reduce the damage and mitigate the impacts. There is really no other way to survive this. So I implore you to vote like your children’s lives depend on the outcome. Because they do. Vote like climate change is real, deadly and impending, because it is. We are not nine billion islands of self floating on an tranquil sea, we are grains of sand along a river of time and we must come together and work or be swept away one by one. There are no other options.

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