Burning to Zero

Carla A. Wise, Oregon

As fires tore through Yellowstone during the long, hot, dry summer of 1988, the fear on people’s faces made the nightly news, a glowing orange light in the background. Well over a million acres burned before fall rain and snow finally extinguished the fires, a massive, terrifying display of nature’s power. Yet when I visited Yellowstone the following summer, what I found was a huge surprise: a diverse and beautiful patchwork landscape, not the place of devastation I’d expected from the TV images. True, some areas were burned down to a blackened lifeless zero, but in other places, the fires had been quick and shallow ground fires, and flowers were already blanketing the ground—Wyoming paintbrush, shooting star, monkey-flower, penstemon—while charred but still-living trees stood above them. Whole other chunks of ground seemed to have been skipped altogether, completely untouched and showing no signs of burns at all. More than anything, the land looked refreshed.

Looking at the vast burned forests of central Oregon today, however, I can’t find much beauty, only black charred death. Driving along the highway that winds up through the Cascades over Santiam Pass, looking up the slopes of Three-Fingered Jack and Mount Washington, the land doesn’t look renewed; it looks devastated. Too many fires, named for their specific locations—Fossil Creek, GW, Black Crater, the B&B Complex, Shadow Lake, Rooster Rock, Pole Creek—have burned here recently, and not much is coming back.

Some people who live around here are mad—at the Forest Service, at environmentalists, at authorities in general—the way locals were mad at the government about Yellowstone all those years ago. Wildfires have been something to fight about in the West my whole life: people want to blame someone besides themselves. That’s much easier than facing the new reality—that we are rapidly losing the power to control western wildfires at all.

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In the fall of 1988, as the snows were putting out the Yellowstone fires, I was starting a master’s program in natural resource management. I was taught that forests in the West evolved with fire, and that some species depend on periodic wildfires for regeneration. Professors told us of fire’s benefits for forest ecosystems: fire removes debris, enriches the soil, and allows for forest renewal. Eighty years of fire suppression, they instructed, had inadvertently allowed dangerous fuel levels to build up in many western forests, altering the natural balance. The best solution would be a combination of controlled burns to reduce fuel loads and a “let it burn” policy for naturally ignited fires in uninhabited forests.

Outside of academia, though, many people in the tourist-and logging-dependent communities in the West disagreed. From their perspective, restrictions on logging and thinning were largely to blame for wildfires and their devastation. The solution they proposed was to log and thin western forests wherever possible, and to fight all wildfires aggressively from the start. Today, this same debate takes place over forest management here in Oregon and elsewhere in the West, inflamed by each new fire—and by our unfolding understanding of climate change, which was just beginning to be discussed when I finished my degree in 1990.

Our forests are burning hotter and longer as climate change tightens its grip. It’s simple: the changing climate is causing longer, drier summers, and better conditions for catastrophic wildfires. A study published in Science in 2006 showed that wildfires in the West had increased fourfold between 1987 and 2003, compared to the sixteen previous years. This upsurge corresponded with an average temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, a 78-day lengthening of the fire season, and over six times more land burned.

Since then, evidence for the link between climate change and worsening western wildfires has only gotten stronger. A 2012 analysis of four decades of Forest Service wildfire records found that nearly every western state has experienced a huge surge in wildfires in the last decade, linked to dramatic warming and earlier snowmelt. Today, fire season is two and a half months longer than it was forty years ago, the number of fires of all sizes has increased dramatically, and on average, wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did forty years ago. Scientists also have documented the bark beetle’s march northward and upward to devastate once-safe forests. Beetle-weakened forests burn hot and fast. Climate change has changed the rules of the fire game, and we have yet to fully grasp what that means.

Denial, my sister loves to say, is not just a river in Egypt. I can’t see that any amount of burning, thinning, or managing is going to save these forests from fire in the new world we are making. Climate change is drying out forests, lengthening the fire season, increasing droughts, and worsening insect kills. Each year, more forest succumbs to the highest-intensity fires, leaving little life behind—what I think of as “burning to zero.” It is a bitter pill, especially when you love these lands.

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Several winters ago, I skied through a patch of ghostly forest near Santiam Pass, looking for clues. This land was in the heart of an especially hard-hit area of central Oregon, with views in all directions dominated by blackened matchstick forests. I love cross-country skiing, but the black tree skeletons against the white snow and gray sky felt bleak and sad that day. It was silent except for the faint noise of cars on the receding highway, and the black and white landscape was an open question. Who knows what the snowmelt will bring? How many springs might it take for a blanket of flowers to be waiting under the crusty frozen cover?

Ever since that day, each time I drive over Santiam Pass between our home in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon and our cabin in the high desert, I gaze out the car window, hoping to see flowers and rebirth, the bounty and lushness I remember from Yellowstone. Spring comes, and then summer, but the vast dead forests along the Highway 20 corridor remain, barren and ugly.

I am beginning to view these charred remains as a repeating reminder of something that we all must understand and find peace with in these times. Destruction is one of the main forces driving the universe, and these vast, blackened lands are part of a cycle. I remember the Hindu god Shiva, and I think perhaps he can help me accept the fires, the climate crisis, the time I live in. In the Hindu system, the endless cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction is expressed in the supreme trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Shiva, the destroyer of the world— terrible, merciless, powerful, good, and awesome—is responsible for change both in the form of death and destruction and in the positive sense of the shedding of old habits. You aren’t required to find Shiva’s destruction pretty; you must simply bow to his power and divinity, and wait for the rebirth that will inevitably follow. I need to get to know Shiva, to see these fires as a symbol of the destructive cycle we are entering. I might be able to view the blackened landscape as cleansing.

Over the last few years, I’ve spent many hours learning and writing about climate change, and this work has been cyclical as well. Sometimes I enjoy the work, but at other times—when I get too emotionally in touch with the likely future, the extent of what we have done and what we are in for, and the ever-shrinking likelihood we will act in time to prevent the worst consequences of what lies ahead—I get overwhelmed. In 2050, my daughter will be fifty, my imagined grandchildren (if they exist) may be starting out on their own, and—if we don’t change course—our world will be entering chaos.

Facing the truth of these times requires strength. Sometimes, I have enough. Strength comes from a variety of sources: my work—personal, political, and professional—to help solve the climate crisis; time spent outside in forests and wildlands; time with my family and friends; my desire to be a good and positive mom and spouse. A climate activist I deeply admire said, “Do something, do anything, just don’t do nothing.” The comfort in heeding her words has been profound. I gain strength from others, as writing allows me to learn about people who are doing amazing things on behalf of the future of the planet and of our children. And lately, some deep, irrational optimism in me watches for the regrowth in the devastated forests that I won’t see in my lifetime, and waits.

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Copyright © 2013 Carla A. Wise