The West Coast burned, but no one was fiddling.
Wildfires raged over the weekend and into the week, claiming lives and choking people with thick, acrid smoke. Government officials urged people to stay inside. Most masks people would wear to protect them from the worldwide, airborne coronavirus were likely not enough to save their lungs from the product of the flames.
Experts believed that the smoke would alleviate after the weekend, blown away by stiff breezes. But by early the next week, it was clear the toxic fog would stay in the region.
Those who could retreat to their homes faced inconvenience ranging to harmful health effects. Those without were forced to marinate in the smoke, putting their lungs and their lives in peril even as they were threatened by the ever-present risk of COVID-19. The city of Seattle and King County teamed up on Sept. 11 to open a smoke shelter in SODO that could bring as many as 100 people indoors, although as of Sept. 14, it had not yet reached capacity, according to a press release.
The additional spaces were expected to close the following morning at 10 a.m. when air quality was predicted to improve. However, as of the morning of Sept. 15, the Washington Department of Ecology was still reporting that the air quality was in the “very unhealthy” to “hazardous” range. Seattle announced that outdoor areas such as parks and boat ramps they closed the previous week due to the smoke would stay closed, adding that they would not issue citations for violations of the order.
Officials had debated opening the SODO smoke shelter, weighing if the risks of bringing a large number of people indoors in the middle of an airborne pandemic exceeded the risks of leaving people outside in toxic air. It was a difficult calculation, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, the health officer for the Seattle & King County Public Health department.
“We’re trying to balance two situations, both of which are fraught with uncertainty,” Duchin said during a Sept. 11 press conference.
While the 24-hour smoke shelter provided some measure of safety for the 87 people who ultimately stayed there, thousands more survived unsheltered throughout King County in the midst of the smoke and the pandemic. Logistically, there was no way for local government to safely bring them all inside, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said at the press conference.
There were indications earlier in the year that Washington state’s wildfire season was going to be particularly bad. March, April and May were hot and dry, and there had already been 468 fires by the end of June, said Hilary Franz, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands, in a June interview.
“The hotter temperatures are conducive to fire,” Franz said. “On top of that, a lot of people are staying home, thinking it’s a safe time to work on their land.”
Most of those early fires were relatively small, but some were bigger, consuming as many as 80 and 90 acres. They paled in comparison to what was to come.
As of Sept. 14, roughly 807,000 acres of land in Washington were scorched by a total of 1,439 wildfires. At least 13 wildfires continued to burn, making it close to the 2015 record of 1 million acres burned, according to a release from the Department of Natural Resources.
An estimated 330,000 acres in Washington burned in just 24 hours, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press conference on Sept. 8. That was more in 24 hours than in any of the 12 last fire seasons in the state. The majority of the town of Malden was consumed by the flames.
The following day, the governor traveled to Bonney Lake, a town roughly 45 minutes south of Seattle. Residents had to evacuate to escape rapidly spreading fires that threatened suburban homes, forcing people to find shelter at a nearby senior center.
“For those who deny the necessity of fighting climate change, let them come to Bonney Lake,” Inslee said. “We are not going to surrender this state and allow this to be our future every single year for the next 100 years. We are smarter, stronger and more resilient than that.”
Inslee based his failed presidential run on a message focused on climate change, and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden earned Inslee’s praise with his $2 trillion proposal to fight against the crisis.
The severity of the crisis is not embraced by the current occupant of the White House, however. In a Sept. 14 visit to California, which is also beset by dangerous fires, President Donald Trump told California officials that “it would start getting cooler, you watch.”
“I don’t think the science knows,” Trump replied when one told him that the science indicated that human-caused climate change was impacting the fire season.
The president’s opinions are just that, however. According to multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree” that climate change is a human-made phenomenon. That is a staggering amount of consensus within any scientific discipline.
The West Coast fires are but one potential manifestation of the destruction that human beings have wreaked on the planet we call home.
The ever-worsening hurricane seasons impacting the east and south coasts are another.
Scientists have been warning of the impact of human-caused climate change since the 1950s. The current disasters within disasters are merely a bill coming due.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Sept. 16-22, 2020 issue.