Fire seasons

Until recently, the thickest wildfire smoke I had experienced was in Mountain Home, Idaho. It was September 2017, and I was driving back to Seattle after a summer in western Colorado. At the time, there were numerous fires burning across the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, partly due to abnormally dry conditions. For a week or so, the worst air quality in the country was in the lower Snake River Valley. Pulling off the highway for the night, I remember squinting at my motel room door from across the parking lot, struggling to make out the number as the air glowed red. I lay on my bed, reading about the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge on my phone.

In 2018, the smoke came home. August and early September in Puget Sound were “apocalyptic”, a word that Washington governor Jay Inslee would use two years later to widespread coverage when, somehow, conditions were even worse. Photos of the Space Needle looming through an eerie orange haze became a kind of regional media shorthand for the climate crisis. I flew out of SeaTac for fall fieldwork with the vague guilt of someone running away from their problems.

Last year while living in Boulder, a mandatory evacuation order came within a few miles of our house. We had been watching the Front Range burn for months—the Cameron Peak Fire and East Troublesome Fire seemed as if they would never be contained—but other than a few days of sooty skies, the threat was mostly abstract in spite of its proximity. Then the Calwood Fire exploded in the foothills just to the north of town, torching homes and making a run for the plains across CO-36. The Lefthand Canyon Fire followed shortly after. Longmont got the worst of it, but there were a few dark hours where ash the size of willow leaves floated down into our yard. It felt as though you could chew the air.

Tuesday morning was like none of these AQI nadirs, but it was the first morning the 2021 fire season was tangible here in northern New Mexico. The sunshine was muted; to the southwest, the sky was stratified like oil and vinegar. Most of the smoke was from the Telegraph and Mescal Fires in Arizona, with a handful of smaller fires in the Gila playing a supporting role. Meanwhile, there’s widespread chatter about how we may be in for an even more catastrophic fire season than last year. 2020 may have been a bit dry, but 2021 sees a majority of the West under “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. Lake Mead just hit its lowest level since the construction of the Hoover Dam. How could it turn out any other way?

And yet. Even given the dire forecast—even given recent history—not every blaze is a sign of the End Times; not every smoky day should be met with dread. Unlike the colder, snowier states to our north, June in the Southwest is historically fire season. In New Mexico, the ongoing Cuervito and the Johnson Fires have attributes of healthy, low-intensity burns, and should leave behind more resilient forests. Which is not to say that we are not on the cusp of another summer of tragedy, or that we should not double down on addressing the multiple root causes of destructive, landscape-altering megafires. We can and should slow climate change, selectively thin choked forests, restrict development in the WUI, and return fire to its precolonial role on the landscape. But none of our futures is free of smoke.