The Dust Bowl made its way into American culture through the songs of Woodie Guthrie, the novels of John Steinbeck, and most recently Timothy Egan’s magisterial, The Worst Hard Time. But its hold on our historic imagination was triggered by millions of “dust bowl” refugees who clogged the entrance stations to California for months, altered the demography of the nation, and emptied counties throughout the South-Central United States of their farming populations.
We don’t know yet if the Great Burning which is being unleashed on the Western United States will reach, or even exceed, the disruptive impact of the great droughts and dust storms of the 1930’s. But we do know, even if we don’t want to admit, that what we face is not simply an unusually big fire season. We should think of the more than 100 wildfires raging across the West as part of a single phenomenon – not individual blazes whose cause can be found in a particular lightning strike, match, downed power line or equipment spark.
I gasped when I stumbled upon this incredible interactive graphic from the Forest Service showing the impact – in fires and smoke both – of the burgeoning incineration of the West. What’s important about the images is the pink showing that there are huge parts of the West with no fires – but lethal quantities of smoke. Sacramento isn’t near any blazes (shown as flames) but health officials have urged residents to remain entirely indoors this summer because the air is so toxic. Places that had major fires last year might have thought they were OK in 2018 – nothing left to burn — but what security is there when the smoke load is enough to choke areas hundreds of miles from a flame?
California’s County Fire was the earliest recorded blaze of such intensity; the San Juan National Forest has been closed for the first time; the Carr Fire did the impossible and leapt the Sacramento River on its way to becoming “a fire tornado,”; fire chiefs routinely describe this year’s blazes as “extreme” and “erratic”. They warn that the blazes are displaying “fire behavior that firefighters have never seen before…”
The direct costs of fighting the fires are draining the treasuries of states as rich as California. Meanwhile, federal firefighting costs have tripled in a decade; even calling in the National Guard during desperate shortages of firefighters and equipment.
President Trump’s tweets notwithstanding, the one thing there is no shortage of is water to fight the flames: rivers and lakes provide massively more than helicopters and hoses can deliver to remote fire lines.
What unleashed this inferno? We did.
Three excesses came together. Too much fuel on the land, too much carbon in the sky, and too many houses in the woods. A century of fire suppression, dousing the low-intensity fires that clearer out small wood, gas and brush, simply meant that when a fire came – as it always did – it came harder, hotter, and higher. Climate disruption – now working in full force – meant more extreme seasons. Wet years so grass and brush could flourish, droughts to turn them into tinder, and hotter summers to prime them to explode at the first spark. Finally, as populations moved away from urban areas, more and more homes were built in harm’s way. Once compact Western towns sprawled deep into the woods. Any major wildfire now threatens not two or three but hundreds of homes.
So what does this new normal mean?
The rural, small-town West has boomed by growth driven by retirees, tourists, recreation and outdoor lovers. But the outdoor, healthy lifestyle desired by the drive West now stands in question as rafting companies cancel float trips, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival shuts down its open-air theater, gas masks spring up on the streets of outdoor meccas, well established bakeries in Napa County can’t afford sugar and flour, and for sale signs go up on the homes retirees chose for clean air and good weather.
We don’t yet have a Dust Bowl-scale of outmigration. We could.
In the 1930’s the Roosevelt Administration arrived too late to prevent the catastrophe. It intervened quickly. By 1938 its soil conservation measures had dramatically reduced the dust storms and soil loss. The Trump Administration is not even thinking seriously about the Great Burning – it rather seeks to make at least one of its sources, climate change, much worse.
There is no federal call for a massive effort to clear the landscape of excessive fuel load. Fire expert Stephen Pyne says “we could probably have 10 times, 20 times more good fire before we got back to what it should be.” (It appears, however, that restoring a forest for low-intensity fires costs about as much per acre as fighting one – with the important difference that in one case you have a living forest afterward.) That’s a lot of work, and a lot of resistance from the public – people like privacy around their houses in the woods. They don’t like controlled burning or thinning out their back windows.
Worse, not even the region has grasped the ubiquity of this problem, this new normal. It doesn’t have a name – I borrowed “the Great Burning” from the Book of Revelations. People are just beginning to comment that five years ago – before the last drought – fires rarely touched our lives unless we lived near an occasional big one – now most Westerners are choking through this summer even in cities, and huge numbers have had their weekend or vacation plans burned out.
As so often with this administration, its own voters will pay the biggest price.
Ironically, it may be that evangelical symbol of divine wrath, fire, that offers a possible bridge between red and blue America, not just on climate change, but on that often forgotten language in the constitution – the federal government exists to promote the general welfare. Inferno proofing the west seems like a good example.