How the West Was Lost
For many people, global warming is merely a threat they hear about on TV, a headline they read in the paper, or news from a summit in a foreign city where bureaucrats bicker over parts per million. But where I live, it is a sound, a drone, real and seasonal, embedded in the same mix as the buzz of spring’s calliope hummingbirds, the bugle of bull elk in fall, and the silence of deep winter. The trained ear cannot only pick it from the cacophony of nature, but also read in it signals of events: an early spring, a drought, a drought elsewhere, and, over decades, a slow and inexorable crescendo.
But then I live in an odd place. Geography and happenstance made Missoula, Montana, one of a handful of centers for fighting wildfire in the West. Lately, that has become significant on a number of fronts, all recorded with this sound: the distinctive drone of P-2V Neptunes, the lumbering Korean War vintage slurry bombers based at the airport just a few miles across the ridge from my house.
Quirky and unique to my place these aircraft may be, but everybody has seen one in action. They figure front and center in the iconic photos and footage so favored by cable news and full-color newsprint, a single plane swooping in over an enflamed forest landscape to dump a long wave of red fire retardant below. Tension, technology, power, danger, crimson, and heroism: it’s all there in a single image.
But lately I’ve come to think this image speaks mostly of futility. This is not the fault of the aircraft; they have aged but not changed in abilities, and once they were enough. Once they and the equally storied smokejumpers and the thousands on thousands of ground troops -- grimy young people in yellow shirts, green pants, and hard hats -- were sufficient to control fire. Young people and aircraft have not changed; the fires have.
I was a newspaper reporter in Missoula in the late ’80s, so was lucky to earn my chops covering wildfire -- lucky because fire came in summer, regular as rain in spring. Blazes roared through August until rising humidity and fall’s showers shut down season the first week of September. We could count on it, beginning and end. During fire season, a reporter could dash about bearing a skinny notebook, chase lights and sirens, and file reliable front-page copy. A big fire was 1,000 acres, and now and again a house burned.
Then came what was, at least by standards then, a scorching drought year, 1988, and suddenly this whole predictable enterprise became less so. Yellowstone National Park burned. A piddling little fire at the south edge of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness reared up and ran 40 miles in a single night, covering 130,000 acres. Heads turned. A few sage fire hands said, "Wait a minute. This is different. Something is up." Then the rains came, and we reporters went on to other things and forgot what we had learned.
But a few people struggled to come to grips with the phenomena of that summer -- not an easy task. A generation of fire scientists had already started to understand the natural and creative role of fire in shaping life in the Northern Rockies. Wildfire was natural. This much we were beginning to understand. But firestorms? Explosions of fire beyond our ken and control? Chaos? Nature was showing itself capable of caprice and violence we had not imagined.
The very next year, Bill McKibben published his landmark work, and it was the title that grabbed me then, The End of Nature. Exactly right. Fire experts were grappling with the power of natural forces, and yet what rang true in McKibben’s work was its scariest and overarching conclusion. A lot of us then still took comfort in that artificial separation of human from nature, especially those of us in Montana who reveled in wilderness. As a young reporter, I saw nature as a retreat from the pettiness and illogic of politics, a place where natural law ruled, not humans.
McKibben’s argument was that global warming extended human effect, even to wilderness. Those fires of 1988 had been, in retrospect, a clear warning of the consequences. If we persisted, nature would respond on a scale we could not comprehend, let alone control.
That same year, I wrote another story I thought un-related to fire. A scientist at the University of Idaho had studied the local ecotypes of ponderosa pine, the iconic species of the Rockies that thrives from Arizona north to British Columbia, and concluded that global warming would kill them. The same species prevails throughout the West, but local ecotypes are exquisitely adapted to local climate and cannot migrate when that climate changes around them. I could not imagine such an outcome, that the totemic tree of a wide slice of my continent would die. I could not imagine a body politic that would ignore this threat and thousands of parallel threats yet to be discovered. Certainly, given this information, rationality would prevail. We would act in our self-interest and avoid that distant, unimaginable, and avoidable catastrophe of dead trees and fire.
I am older now and know better.
Now the forests from here south to Colorado are streaked with standing red, dead pine. Tindered trees, lightning, and global warming -- we live in interesting times, especially those of us who fight wildfire.
In 2007, I could climb the hill next to my house and, on days the wind had cleared smoke enough to see the horizon line, see six fires bigger than 10,000 acres. But on most days, the smoke did not clear, and we measured the happenings all around us by the blitzkriegian drone of slurry bombers, their frequency and volume rising in number with proximity of fires. In 1988, 130,000 acres was a jaw-dropping, once-in-a-career, stuff-of-legend fire. Since, there have been at least 60 fires larger than 100,000 acres in the United States.
The sound of bombers arrived earlier this year. They were off to New Mexico first, then to a couple of big fires in Utah, where there was a crash, two dead, then a crash landing, a bad year for bombers. As I write this, word comes of a C-130 tanker crash on a fire in South Dakota, four dead. In Colorado Springs, several hundred houses vaporized, at least two people dead. Summer not yet really begun and Colorado has its worst fire in history.
Here in Montana, the sound settles in as bombers hop to big blazes in the east of the state, already one fire bigger than 100,000 acres -- much bigger, a quarter of a million acres. One fire. Already close to a hundred houses leveled.
Yet it is more than just acres or houses or bodies that distinguish these fires; it is surrender. Firefighters are not taught the word "surrender" and would like to call it "tactical retreat," but the times I have talked to people who have been there, it sounded like surrender to me. These big fires reach a point when grimy young people and aircraft simply pull back and declare them beyond control. Even beyond control of the bombers.
So have we arrived? Is this global warming? Well, no. The future has been carefully modeled and graphed, and while the specific details of the climbing curves may be under dispute, there is no scenario that shows a plateau, a leveling, certainly not now, not in the foreseeable future. This is where it pays to remember that the upsurge in fires of the past 20 years -- the 20 years when we could have acted -- has been exponential, something like a doubling in a decade. This suggests we have not arrived at global warming; we have only begun. How does one calculate and quantify a doubling of chaos?
From this perspective, the drone, the crashes, the surrender, seem to grow more desperate and mosquito-like in timbre each season. But what else do we do? The days of fighting to avert catastrophe are over. It is here. Those with fight left in them now battle to avert an exponential increase in catastrophe. And fight they must. So the drone continues.
Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series on Western wildfires and climate change. Read related stories here.