Bozeman, Mont. — Here in the Mountain West, there are no longer four seasons, only two: winter and wildfire. (Unless you’re a tourist, in which case: ski season and fly fishing.)
Come August, my sister and I will make our annual bet, for pizza, on what date the first snow will fall in Bozeman, our hometown. I always lose rooting for the earliest possible flurries, since the snows snuff out the region’s last, stubborn wildfires. Then, when the smoke finally stops wafting across the Gallatin Valley, I can put away my eyedrops and see clearly which neighbors fail to abide by the Northern Hemisphere’s most sacred social contract, shoveling one’s sidewalk. Who cares about Republicans and Democrats? In this climate, there are only snow-shoveling solid citizens or the deadbeats whose slippery walks pose a daily existential threat to the brittle bones of my nice, elderly mom.
Looking back on this neck of the woods’ multiplying struggles with the effects of global warming — and drying — I have come to think of June 14, 1988, as the first day of the rest of our lives. On that date 30 years ago, lightning struck the Custer National Forest northeast of Yellowstone National Park, igniting the Storm Creek fire, the first of that hot, dry, windy summer’s major infernos to spread into the park.
By mid-July, lightning had also sparked the Shoshone, Fan, Red, Clover and Mink fires. On Aug. 20, fireballs conveyed by 80-mile-per-hour winds ravaged 165,000 acres in a single day remembered as Black Saturday. On Sept. 1, a headline in this newspaper announced, “U.S. Forest Fires Worst Since 1919.” By Sept. 11, when the first snows started to put an end to the ordeal, 1.4 million acres of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem had burned, including more than a third of America’s oldest and most beloved national park.
Coincidentally, just as the Storm Creek fire got cracking, my college radio station, Montana State’s KGLT, hired me as a news anchor and tape cutter, to slice wire service reports off reel-to-reel tape with a razor blade. Compared with the other big story we covered that summer — a humdrum contest between two major-party presidential tickets made up of three qualified, reasonable public servants and Dan Quayle — the anarchy of the wildfires jibed with the jumpy intrigue of our newscast’s theme song by the punk band Gang of Four. Whenever I hear that quivering guitar on “I Found That Essence Rare,” I have a Pavlovian impulse to bring up the vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen.
Though we the people did not learn much from the ’88 presidential campaign — it would be another 28 years before it occurred to us to never take for granted a blessedly boring general election — the Yellowstone fires were nothing but educational.
Turns out, controlling a Western wildfire when winds exceed an Interstate highway’s speed limit and it hasn’t rained for weeks is not the same as extinguishing a blazing apartment building on the Upper East Side. Humans can’t always put out a wildfire, no matter how loudly the senators from Wyoming scream at them to please try harder. Or, fun fact, certain lodgepole pine cones can release their seeds only when heated to temperatures starting at 113 degrees, so for a lodgepole pine forest to live it has to occasionally die. Which is to say, the most valuable, hopeful lesson for we nonscientists in 1988 was that wildfire is inevitable, even healthy.
That said, what’s good for lodgepole pines is not necessarily good for asthmatic first graders living downwind from what Wyatt Earp never called a “wildland-urban interface.” According to a persuasive paper published by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year, Tania Schoennagel of the University of Colorado and her co-authors warn, “Although many plants, animals and ecosystem services benefit from fire, it is unknown how ecosystems will respond to increased burning and warming.”
Noting the uptick in wildfires over the last three hotter, dryer decades, she posits that by the middle of this century, “82 million people in the Western United States are likely to experience more and longer ‘smokewaves,’ defined as consecutive days of high, unhealthy particulate levels from wildfires.”
In order to deal with the upsurge in ecological, economic, educational, legal and health issues associated with more and bigger wildfires in the West, Dr. Schoennagel proclaims, “We need to develop a new fire culture.”
This country could use a few group projects, and coming up with a new fire culture is no longer optional. A few weeks ago, thanks to wildfires, Missoula, Mont., made the American Lung Association’s list of the most polluted cities for short-term particle pollution. As I wrote this, the residents of 2,000 homes in southwestern Colorado were being evacuated because of the approaching 416 Fire. (It’s always ominous when they burn long enough to acquire proper names.)
What I feel for those people is more than basic empathy — it’s solidarity. Another thing I learned 30 years ago living on the northern edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is this: When the fires come, we all breathe the same smoke.