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19 October, 2009

Fire Comes in

October rolls around, and fire moves inside. Maybe the weather gives it a few more weeks outside, heat and drought overcome rain for a while. Maybe flickers its arrival, oscillates between forest and hearth before making the jump for the long winter ahead. But rarely does November blow in to find fire still cavorting under the lowering sky.
This summer, wildfires were not so bad as expected (and in some quarters, desired, for where there’s smoke, there’s work). Climate change has induced drought, let forest-ravaging bugs move north, and spawned severe lightning storms at whose fulgerite-toed feet blame is laid for many a wildland blaze. Especially on the western Cascadian slopes, swaths of dead and weakened conifers stand brownly, needley tinder tempting sparks. 

I work with people who fight forest fires, and when they talk of the next summer, their eyes smoke over and their jaws clench, knowing that the Northwest will not be immune to conflagrations forever. They grant that this year’s acreage burnt may not have been so bad, but grimly acknowledge the colossal and growing fuel load, the budget cuts that have decimated thinning of that load, the fact that fires kept emerging for weeks this year after the usual close of the season. They worry that their job security will come at the cost of an inferno. They know that it ain’t just the lightning, it’ the people who start fires, who build stick homes in forests that have burnt since time immemorial.

After summer’s blazing heat, but before the blanket of wet settles completely, people here have long had burning seasons. Today it may be timber slash piles, and for millennia before it was the dried grass of the prairie, the clean-picked and exhausted berry patch. Ecosystems exist here that would not have been born without anthropyro-sparked mosaics of regeneration; mile after mile of black prairie soil sequesters this carbon truth. Not an escapee or a mistake, but fire the ally: clearer of underbrush, landscaper of game parks, feeder of berries. Under the knowing hand and at the right time—autumn cool, February sunbreak, spring flush—this not-so-wild outdoor fire helped humans prosper.
It is the Northwest, after all, and at some point the lows in the Gulf of Alaska and the Pineapple Express bring in the moisture, outdoor fires wild and feral retreat for another winter. Their tamed cousin builds a glow inside as it has for millennia, drying soaked boots and warming chilled toes, cooking savory meals, lighting the dancers and crackling along with the drumbeats, embers shimmering reticulose like an octopus’s skin as tales unwind. We welcome and nurture this fire as part of our family.

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