Thursday, August 14, 2014

Environmental Issues: Wildfires in Washington State

The overcast gray skies outside my windows this morning are a familiar sight in Western Washington, but they have been scarce so far this summer as blazing sunshine and record heat have predominated.  Neither the residents nor the landscape of our Evergreen State are accustomed to long stretches of hot, dry weather.  And for evidence of the latter, one needs look no further than the eastern half of our state, which is currently on fire:

Large Fire Map - Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. CLICK HERE for interactive version.

According to the spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center quoted in this Reuters article, we are on track to break a record this year for the number of acres burned by wildfire.  Already, hundreds of thousands of acres have burned so far, with 250,000 of those acres belonging to the Carlton Complex fire, now standing as the largest fire in state history.  Hundreds of homes have been burned.  Tens of thousands of people have been affected. And the official wildfire season won't end until October.  We still have a long way to go.

Why so many fires this year? Conditions in our region have been abnormally hot -- and dry, as you can see in the drought map above.  Combine that with several unfortunately-timed lighting storms and the conditions are ripe for wildfires to explode.

Have we just been unlucky this year with the combination of heat, drought and more numerous lighting storms than usual, or is this a portent of what we can expect to see regularly in the years to come?  Unfortunately, this may just be the beginning.

The 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA) cites increasing wildfire as one of the top threats to northwest forests. Climate change will cause our region to experience hotter, drier summers similar to (and in the future, even worse than) what we're experiencing this year.  As a result, the amount of land burned by wildfires is expected to increase up to 500% in the Cascades. Details in the NCA here.

The wildfires we've seen so far this summer in Washington State have been devastating.  Lives and homes have been lost, livelihoods disrupted, hundreds of thousands of acres of forest burned, wildlife habitat destroyed-- and the worst could yet be to come. This destruction is not something we want to see repeated year after year, and is all the more reason for us to act on climate change immediately. Those who say the northwest isn't experiencing any effects of climate change: take a look at the fire map above.  This is climate change hitting home.

Not a sight I want to get used to... wildfire smoke clearly visible on eastbound I-90 near Bellevue (I took this photo from the passenger seat - wasn't driving, I promise!)

Helpful links:

WA State Dept of Natural Resources Wildfire Prevention and Awareness Tips

Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (daily updates and detailed information on current fires)

This White House video offers a concise summary of the link between climate change and wildfires.  Regardless of your political leanings, this short video is worth a watch.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Saint Edward State Park- Lainey Piland photo
The writer John Burroughs once said that he visited nature to be soothed and healed and to have his senses put in order.  In light of recent sad events in the news, today I found myself reflecting on the very aspects of nature which provide such healing and hope for downcast souls.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
― Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
...and to that I say: Amen.  Nature has repeating rhythms and a capacity for renewal that are astonishing and comforting, and have the ability to put our own worries and struggles into perspective.  The natural world around us is a great visual reminder that in the grand scheme of things, there are no insults, setbacks, or difficulties from which we cannot recover.

Last weekend, my husband and I went hiking at Saint Edward State Park, which is one of my absolute favorite places to visit. Comprised of more than 300 acres of mostly-wooded property, this park is a study in nature's capacity for renewal.  Those who visit the park and are unaware of its history would likely be surprised to learn that the forest was clear-cut in the early 20th century.  This is shocking because presently the park boasts a lush and diverse second-growth forest and massive trees that look as though they've stood for centuries.

Here are a few photos taken on a recent hike at Saint Edward which speak to nature's ability to renew itself.  I gave these photos the snazzy name of "Hemlocks Growing from Cedar Stumps" (although perhaps "Alien Tree Takeover" would also be appropriate, and a bit more colorful...):

The once-towering cedar trees along the trail may have been reduced to crumbling stumps, but still life goes on as hemlocks take root and grow. It is amazing to hike through the forest at Saint Edwards and consider that even after experiencing the grievous insult of being clear-cut, enough substance remained on the devastated landscape to support an entire new, flourishing forest that stands triumphant today.

Whether it is the rising and setting of the sun each day or the regrowth of a once clear-cut forest, nature's rhythms and continual renewal are indeed healing and soothing, if we learn to seek them out.