Smoke Signals in the West

SWEET HOME, Oregon–We were in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest recently as part of a five-week camping and hiking tour of the West, when U.S. Forest Supervisor Tracey Beck issued an order prohibiting campfires, smoking, welding and the use of chainsaws for the period Aug. 24 to Nov. 1.

The notice, posted on the campground bulletin board, came as no surprise. The western woods were so parched any spark could turn the tinder into a raging inferno. For days we saw the smoky haze that hung in the sky all around us from fires far away. We had first noticed it weeks earlier passing through western Nebraska. A woman stocking the self-service breakfast bar at our hotel in North Platte looked out a window and said the grey pall was coming from fires in Colorado hundreds of miles away.

Notices banning outdoor burning were posted throughout Oregon.

The news had been full of stories about wildfires destroying homes, lives and hundreds of thousands of acres of timber. The worst seemed to be in Northern California where truckers abandoned their big rigs on Interstate 5 near the Oregon state line when the trees on both sides of the road burst into flames. Traveling through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado, we never witnessed any fires up close, but we learned that a forest fire affects the lives of people far away from the smoldering woods.

Visiting Portland, Oregon, we found that the poor air quality caused by far-away blazes had forced the local parks department to cancel outdoor athletic practices. We took our three grandchildren to an indoor play and entertainment venue, and the owner said he was having twice the usual business that day because youngsters were not supposed to play outside.

Shopping at a local grocery store, we were told no organic eggs were available because wildfires had affected laying hens in California. We had no way of confirming this immediately, but later I found a number of stories reporting that scientific studies were underway in California on the effects of wildfires on the poultry industry.

Everywhere we went we saw evidence of fires and people fighting them. Bureau of Land Management firefighters were lodged at our same hotel in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and we spotted fire-fighting crews on the interstate near Boise, Idaho.

Smoke shrouds the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho

Most of all, we saw that the big sky of the west was not so clear. A U.S. Forest Service employee at the Sweet Home headquarters told me she once was able to see Washington’s Mount St. Helens from the lookout platform atop Iron Mountain, elevation 5,167 feet, in the Old Cascades. But when I climbed the mountain on Sept. 5, smoke obscured visibility to only the closest mountains.

At the same time as our trip, we had relatives visiting Glacier National Park in Montana where fires were also curtailing tourism. Traffic was banned on some roads, and the Lake McDonald Lodge area was closed to visitors.

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The hazy view from atop Iron Mountain lookout in the Willamette National Forest

Some people might think the rule banning campfires was one of those “job killing regulations,” since all those front yard mom and pop operations that advertise firewood for sale at $5 a bundle would be put out of business. And indeed, some people would probably forego camping if they knew they couldn’t have a fire.

The federal online registration agency,, gave me a chance to cancel my camping reservation with a full refund because of the campfire ban. But I was not inconvenienced. A campfire has never been essential to an outdoor experience for me. I was glad the government was laying down an order that might protect the forest.

Campfires are not essential for a satisfactory outdoor experience

After all, most wildfires are caused by human activity. Natural fires start from lightning. But according to Stephen J. Pyne, an expert on wildfires, 90 percent of them are caused by human carelessness–accidents, arson, machinery and sparks from utility power lines.

As more people live, recreate or do business in the forests, the chance of wildfire increases.

Many years ago I traveled with my family aboard Colorado’s Durango to Silverton narrow-gauge train pulled by a coal-fired steam engine. I remember sticking my head out of a passenger car window to film the smoking engine with a Kodak home movie camera. That shot captured the scene of water hoses extending from the train’s water tender, attempting to douse fires that might be caused by glowing cinders that fell along the right of way.

On Sept. 11, the Denver Post reported that a group of residents and businesses in southwestern Colorado had filed a civil suit against the railroad, claiming it was responsible for a forest fire that started June 1 near the train company’s tracks north of Durango. The newspaper reported the fire grew to more than 50,000 acres, becoming the sixth largest wildfire in Colorado history. The lawyer representing the plaintiffs said the railroad carelessly ran its coal-fired steam train during an extreme drought despite starting numerous fires in the past.

A Denver television station reported Sept. 11 that a brush fire nearly a year ago that threatened the homes of thousands of people was started by a group of police officers who fired an incendiary round at a shooting range against the range’s rules. The fire burned 46 acres.

Wildfire seasons are becoming longer, and wildfires have become more destructive. More money is being budgeted to fight them.

According to the Associated Press, the federal government spent $2.4 billion last year to fight fires that destroyed 8,500 homes and businesses, damaged about 15,500 square miles (9.9 million acres) and killed 14 firefighters. The firefighting costs accounted for 55 percent of the Forest Service’s budget. In a major accounting change, a special Wildfire Disaster Fund of $3.2 billion has been set up this year to pay for fighting wildfires.

Climate change is affecting the wildfires. It’s not causing them directly, but it is making them more ferocious and more likely. For example, the tiny pine bark beetle which burrows into trees and kills them, is more likely to survive now because of milder and shorter winters in the West. The dead trees fallen by the infestation become kindling for future wildfires.

Pyne, the wild fire expert, is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. He has taught courses on fire and has published over 30 books, most of them dealing with fires. On his university web page, he has posted for journalists a concise summary of wildland fire and its management.

“Climate change is accentuating trends toward more bad fire–call it a performance enhancer,” Pyne wrote. “The principle effects seem to be a reduction in winter and spring precipitation, which has lengthened the fire season and made more fuels available, and hot dry spells, which drops relative humidity.”

If it were more humid, a fire would slow down or even die. But recurring drought dries out the trees making them ready fuel for fires.

The smoke signals I saw in the West contained a message. Mother Nature is trying to tell us something.

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