By Luminita Cuna
I was excited to join my friend on a road trip this past September – an opportunity for both to visit the Pacific Northwest for the first time. As my departure date drew near, I started reading alarming news about the wildfires that were wracking havoc in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. My friend was texting me from Vancouver Island with disappointment that on some days she could not see the horizon line above the sea because of the thick smoke caused by the fires. British Columbia was experiencing its worst fire season ever. Seattle woke up covered in ashes and smoke from the wildfires raging throughout the state. Long time residents said it had not been that bad since 1980s, when nearby Mount St. Helen’s erupted. The air was unhealthy to breathe. Flights could be impacted due to low visibility.
Mount Rainier Park’s eastern side was closed, the visibility in the park was very low (I was lucky enough to get one clear morning when I could see the stunning mountain). We camped, but could not lit a camp fire – a fire ban was in effect across the whole region. We had to cancel our planned hikes in Columbia River Gorge as the whole area was engulfed by flames. Wildfires impacted my trip. And this was nothing compared to how these fires affected thousands of lives and livelihoods in the region.
Weeks later, California caught on fire. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land burnt in Northern California. Dozens of people died. Lives, homes, businesses, vineyards were lost. The town of Santa Rosa was almost wiped out off the face of the Earth. People’s health and safety were seriously at risk. And then, extremely dry conditions and Santa Ana winds, more powerful than usual, fuelled unbelievably raging fires that devastated Southern California. It was probably California’s worst fire season. The economic damages may well surpass $1 billion.
While the Northwest was burning, the Southeast and the Caribbean was under water, after a chain of level 5 hurricanes that brought historic rainfall levels and unseen storm surges. Appalled by what nature brought upon the country this summer and fall, and motivated by my personal experience in the PNW, I searched for answers – what caused this devastating fire season? The answer was a melange of natural and human factors coming together in a perfect storm.
In order for a wild fire to happen, three elements need to converge: fuel, oxygen and heat source. All elements were present in abundance. California was already suffering from a five year long severe drought. As a consequence, the vegetation – grass especially – was at its driest. The record heat, combined with thunderstorms that produced dry lightning started the fires and strong winds fed the flames and helped them move at record speeds. Human action had something to do with this, many fires were actually started by people, be they careless campers or irresponsible folks.
Climate change and (lack of) resilience thinking also played a role in this devastating act. The heat, the winds, the dryness were likely amplified by our warming climate. Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb change and still persist or transformation into a more desirable state. Wildfires normally increase the resilience of a forest. Fire is good as it clears the undergrowth, it restores the forest, maintaining it in a healthy state. Wild fires reset the forest ecosystem. Their managed suppression created extremely dense forests, more vulnerable to fires. Human activities contributed to the decreased resilience of the forest. By protecting cities and other economically valuable resources, people ignored the importance of the natural resilience of the forest.
In the Building Climate Change Resilient Communities class we provide key knowledge about resilience and resilience thinking. We learn how we can avoid some disastrous situations, while preparing for the inevitable ones. In this class, we discuss about the resilience of social and ecological systems and we look at various ways to conduct resilience assessments of ecosystems and communities. We invite you to join the class to learn more about solutions to these pressing issues.