I am writing this in Vermont where the vegetation is lush. Where, outside my first-floor window, woods with deep undergrowth flourish to the point where, if I wanted to cross the woods to the parking lot, I’d have to find a path. The air is so humid that the clothes I rinsed out last night are not yet dry, but I read the news on my computer of fires in my home country, the Rocky Mountain west. Late June feels early for fires to me, and when I look at the numbers of acres burned and the numbers of houses destroyed, I can feel the anxiety that rises in me every fire season. I have lived in the west for a long time, and every summer, when I smell a hint of smoke in the air, that vague unease begins. Sometimes it’s not the smell. Sometimes it’s just a faint smudge along one on of horizons that signals the presence of fire somewhere, and sometimes it’s a huge column of smoke rising from somewhere not too far from town. Sometimes it is the brilliant sunsets that smoke in the air produced. All of these cause me to feel uneasy and wary. Fire has been part of western ecology for millennia. Tree rings studies show that fires consumes forests and grass lands every summer, and some summers those fires are enormous. The enormous fires on Yellowstone in 1988 were rivaled by a series of equally big fires around the time that Lewis and Clark were exploring the west. It’s also true the some conifer cones do not even open unless they are exposed to high heat. Fire nourishes the soil, and anyone who has walked through an area even a year after a fire knows that the vegetation comes back. There are still stands of blackened, dead trees, but young trees now have enough sunlight to grow, grasses grow deep and thick and wildflowers bloom in profusion.
However, knowing this does not relieve the anxiety that I feel when I wake in the night, smell smoke and think the house is on fire. So, being two-thousand miles from home and seeing pictures of glowing hillsides not more than twenty-five miles from my house, creates that same low-level anxious buzz in my head. I know people and places in the paths of some of these fires. There would be nothing I could do even if I were at home, except to take meals to fire fighters, or send clothing and bedding to the people in Ashland, Montana, (ironic name) who have lost their homes. Here, in this lush Eastern landscape, fire is so unusual that it doesn’t really cross anyone’s mind. The smell of smoke or an unusually colored cloud will not bring the associations of devastation that they do to westerners.
I am not saying that westerners are unusually aware of their environments, but what I think is that if we are paying attention to where we live, we all have triggers that make us anxious. Sometimes it is that low –level anxiety that the smell of smoke brings to me, and sometimes, for other places, it is the anxiety (and caution) that makes people hoard food and water in tornedo cellars. When I visited Grand Cayman Island a number of years ago, my friends there showed me the wreckage from a hurricane that had blown through several years before, the way I might show someone a hillside full of blackened trees. These island dwellers, like many who live on seacoasts, sense the approach of hurricane season. They feel the changes in the winds, in the temperatures, in the humidity the same way that I sense the increased dryness in the air, the rising heat, and the dry lightning that sets of fires.
I want to believe that the fires in the west are not increasing. I want to believe that the early fires of this year are not the beginning of a truly devastating fire season. I want to believe that this is merely part of the natural cycle of ecological change, but the evidence continues to mount that climate change is real, and that as the west becomes hotter and drier, I am afraid that I can look forward not only to increasing fires, but also to a deepening sense of anxiety as fire seasons approach in the years to come.