At the exact moment that residents of the West Coast are celebrating low infection rates and relaxed mask mandates, our region is quietly preparing for the next catastrophe. Though most of us are only in the beginning stages of planning for our summers — and dreaming of a summer among friends, complete with hugs and travel — the stewards of our woods are forming concrete, serious plans.
Memories of last summer may be a bit hazy — and not just because COVID-19 has had a way of slowing and melding time. The summer of 2020 turned large swaths of Washington, Oregon and California into an alien, smoke-choked landscape that was unrecognizable. The most recent wildfire season killed 46 people, destroyed several towns and more than doubled California’s previous annual record for area burned, which was last set in 2018, with over 4.1 million acres. Five of the top six largest wildfires on record for California burned during August and September 2020.
Many people lost their homes and livelihoods. We couldn’t breathe the air. We couldn’t open the windows. And of course, people living outside experienced some of the worst of it. Our unsheltered neighbors, without the ability to cram into the usual indoor spaces, like libraries (closed) or cooling centers (closed) or public spaces (closed), suffered enormously.
This summer was supposed to be better. Vaccines mean fewer restrictions, which mean safer shelters for people who are displaced. But the conditions in our region right now — dry, hot and full of people who can’t wait to go camping — are not giving the folks at the Department of Natural Resources hope. Instead, they’re predicting another summer spent inside, gazing out the window at a city that looks more like the surface of Mars.
In a Zoom call earlier this year, the Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, did not mince words, stating that we could “most likely” expect another bad year.
At the same time, wildfires — and the health havoc they bring — are not necessarily inevitable. Fires have been started by irresponsible campers, gender reveal parties and unsupervised kids. They’ve been made worse by poor outdoor practices and failure to prepare.
Our unsheltered neighbors who have survived COVID-19 may not survive another summer choking on ash. As we look to finally put the year of lockdown behind us, we must also look ahead toward the next big crisis.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is the co-founder of Seattlish; her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company and VICE.
Read more of the June 2-8, 2021 issue.