Devastating fire in Malden
Still from video showing the devastating fire in Malden, Washington (KREM 2 News)

In the days lead­ing up to Labor Day week­end, offi­cials with Wash­ing­ton State’s Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources — from Com­mis­sion­er Hilary Franz on down — spoke out as loud­ly as they could in an attempt to head off irre­spon­si­ble behav­ior that could lead to death, injury, and prop­er­ty destruc­tion dur­ing fire sea­son.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, some peo­ple either nev­er heard or nev­er heed­ed their message.

By the time the sun had set yes­ter­day, the Pacif­ic North­west had joined Cal­i­for­nia in firestorm mis­ery, with hun­dreds of thou­sands of acres new­ly burnt or burning.

Smoke blown east by gusty winds began pol­lut­ing the Puget Sound low­lands and Ore­gon’s Willamette Val­ley not long before sun­down on Labor Day, caus­ing air qual­i­ty to rapid­ly plum­met. Urban Pacif­ic North­west­ern­ers are advised to lim­it time out­doors, keep the win­dows closed, and run an air puri­fi­er if they have one.

“I’m sick, the amount of new fires today is unre­al,” tweet­ed DNR fire mete­o­rol­o­gist Josh Clark. “Ear­ly esti­mates fig­ure 288,000 acres burned today across the state. Numer­ous homes and prop­er­ty destroyed, 30,000+ with­out pow­er. Every one of these was 100% human-caused, and there­fore 100% preventable.”

New fires in Washington, as of Labor Day 2020
A map show­ing new fires in Wash­ing­ton State (Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources)

“Plus con­di­tions were very well fore­cast­ed by your­self and many oth­ers,” replied John Abat­zoglou. “Believe that your efforts + mes­sag­ing do help; but these cap­stone wind events empha­size what sci­ence, info, sup­pres­sion alone can’t fix.”

With dry and windy con­di­tions like those that we’re see­ing now, all it takes is one spark to start a red hot con­fla­gra­tion that no fire­fight­ing force can contain.

The news com­ing out of Cal­i­for­nia should have served as a warn­ing to us.

Big Basin Red­woods State Park recent­ly lost all of its his­toric build­ings to fire. Many of the red­woods sur­vived (they’re a hardy, fire resis­tant species) but the park is no longer the lush green oasis that it once was. Its CCC-built vis­i­tors cen­ter, con­struct­ed in the 1930s, is no more. The park is expect­ed to be closed to vis­i­tors for at least a year due to the dam­age caused by the CZU com­plex.

Sad­ly, some Pacif­ic North­west­ern­ers chose not to exer­cise cau­tion, and as a con­se­quence, Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon have seen fires sprout up all over.

The small town of Malden, Wash­ing­ton (near Pull­man), suf­fered a fate sim­i­lar to Big Basin today. In just a few hours, eighty per­cent of the town burned to the ground, includ­ing the post office, the fire sta­tion, and city hall. The dev­as­ta­tion was doc­u­ment­ed by media out­lets based in Spokane and Pull­man.

Scene from a fire in Malden
A struc­ture is reduced to its foun­da­tions in Malden (Pho­to: Whit­man Coun­ty Sher­if­f’s office)

Mean­while, down in Cal­i­for­nia, the Creek Fire is rag­ing out of control.

“The Creek Fire is up to 130,000 acres (203 square miles) and is 0% con­tained,” report­ed Marie Edinger of KMPH. “The Fres­no Coun­ty Sheriff’s Office says 25,000–30,000 peo­ple have been evac­u­at­ed, and that many of those peo­ple should expect to be away from home for a long while.”

Extreme­ly high, kiln-like tem­per­a­tures, smoky skies, and falling ash have made life in the Los Ange­les area hideous­ly uncom­fort­able.

Sear­ing sum­mer fires are not a new prob­lem on the Left Coast, of course.

But fire sea­son did­n’t used to be this dead­ly or destruc­tive.

“Through only ear­ly Sep­tem­ber, wild­fires so far this year have burned more than 2 mil­lion acres in the state, sur­pass­ing 2018 for the most acres destroyed in a year, accord­ing to fig­ures from the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion and Times research,” the Los Ange­les Times report­ed.

The cli­mate cri­sis has exac­er­bat­ed the com­mon­al­i­ty and sever­i­ty of extreme weath­er events of all kinds. While the Left Coast burns from incred­i­bly destruc­tive wild­fires, the Gulf Coast is grap­pling with the threat of treach­er­ous hur­ri­canes like Lau­ra, which recent­ly pum­meled the Lake Charles area in Louisiana.

We have only our­selves to blame for the dam­age we’ve caused to our cli­mate. Don­ald Trump and his enablers can sneer that it’s a hoax all they want — Moth­er Nature does­n’t care what they think. There’s a mes­sage in all of these extreme weath­er events: rethink your unsus­tain­able and pol­lut­ing ways.

The Earth is our com­mon home. And our only home: there is no Plan­et B. Yet we’re trash­ing it. Destroy­ing it. At breath­tak­ing speed.

If we’re to save what is left of the home we’re bor­row­ing from our chil­dren, we are going to have to change how we live, work, play, and gov­ern ourselves.

It is clear that just ask­ing peo­ple nice­ly not set off fire­works, burn debris, or dis­charge firearms recre­ation­al­ly is not work­ing. It’s time for Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, Cal­i­for­nia, and oth­er states to take a tougher line against activ­i­ties that can lead to the rapid destruc­tion of every­thing from state parks to small towns. Activ­i­ties like burn­ing debris should be pro­hib­it­ed. Oth­er activ­i­ties should require permits.

And for all our sakes, let’s make sure we sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase the bud­get of the Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources. We need to not only beef up our fire pre­ven­tion pro­grams, but geo­log­ic haz­ards map­ping too, for we live in an area prone to tsunamis, lahars, vol­canic erup­tions, and landslides.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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One reply on “DNR fire meteorologist horrified by barrage of (human caused) Labor Day 2020 fire disasters”

  1. Anec­do­tal­ly, a com­mon report is of open scofflaws light­ing camp­fires in parks where camp­fires are clear­ly indi­cat­ed as pro­hib­it­ed. We have gen­er­a­tional seg­ments of soci­ety with absolute­ly no sense of com­mu­ni­ty and actu­al antipa­thy towards being asked for any con­ces­sion or incon­ve­nience of wan­ton desires.

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