The West is on fire and there’s nowhere to run. Up and down Interstate 5, the artery connecting most of the major cities on the West Coast, a pall of thick smoke has turned the sun red. Millions of acres have burned. I’m calling and texting friends in communities across Oregon, Washington, California. A friend who lives in the Medford area of Oregon, where hundreds of homes have been destroyed, has evacuated; another lost her childhood home. Later today, another friend living in the path of uncontrolled flames is bringing some of her paintings to my house to keep them safe. My brother Alex, a sign installer in Seattle, is wearing a particulate respirator while he works in nearly 90-degree heat, but since it has an unfiltered exhalation valve, he has to switch to a cloth mask to interact with clients. He says that when he’s switching the masks out, he can feel the grit in his throat as he breathes in. The claustrophobia of this—of fire turning the entire West Coast dim with smoke, on top of the fear, isolation, and long-term lockdown imposed by the pandemic—is almost too much to bear.
The American West is laden with all sorts of cultural baggage, much of it cornball settler-colonialist tropes that quickly turn dangerously toxic—cults of rugged individualism and self-reliance, myths of boundless opportunity. But one part of the western ethos that I have always clung to, as someone born in Seattle and now living in Southern Oregon, is that there is space in the West—space to be alone, to stretch out and express yourself, or to move on and reinvent yourself. When I lived on the East Coast, the restaurant tables always seemed too close together. Parks were too crowded. The horizon was cluttered with buildings and trees. After moving back West, my eyes were able to focus on distant mountains or the endless Pacific. If I got pissed off or needed to think, I could always drive until I was the only one on the road.
Fire has been part of the West for millennia. Ponderosa pines’ sweetly fragrant bark has evolved to shield the heart of the tree from frequent small-scale blazes. The wildflower-spangled meadows of Yosemite were maintained by Indigenous people through careful use of controlled burns. Such meadows were magnets for game and gardens for food plants.
But the post-colonial history of fire suppression and climate change has altered the fires. They are more intense, more frequent, and more wide-ranging. A renewing force has become an obliterating force. These fires burn so hot, they sterilize the topsoil. [Continue reading…]