July in Yakima Canyon, Washington: hot as shit and smoky. At the campsite where my friends and I are staying, the Bureau of Land Management has stacked rocks in the fire rings and stuck tiny red flags on top of the piles, indicating a burn ban. We brought popsicles in the cooler instead of meat to grill. There are “No Campfire” signs on nearly every flat surface, and still we can smell ash in the air. Someone at the campsite has a fire cranking, despite the heat, despite the ban.
The next morning, as we float down the Yakima River, we can see a thin gray column of smoke on the horizon. “No lightning last night,” my boyfriend, Thomas, a former wildland firefighter, says, implying it must have been started by a person.
When we come back into cell-service range, we check the interagency fire map and learn that the fire, most likely set by a spark from someone’s car, burned 5,000 acres in four hours, ripping through dry grass and sage.
Wildfires are natural and crucial for ecosystem cycles, but according to the past 20 years of U.S. Forest Service data, 85 percent are caused by humans. We leave our campfires burning. We are careless with our cigarettes, fireworks, and waste. And even before we throw a spark, we have created hotter, drier, more dangerous conditions through fossil-fuel consumption and the ways we use and manage land. We have tipped the scales hard and fast, and eventually those imbalances catch up.
After our weekend in Yakima Canyon, it stayed hot, and the fires kept sizzling. A week later, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources closed all of its public land in the eastern part of the state. By mid-July, 900 fires had burned 140,000 acres across Washington, and the DNR, which is a firefighting agency in addition to a land manager, was spread thin. It couldn’t manage current burns and have rangers on the ground policing every single illegal campfire. People on public land hadn’t proven themselves able to play by the rules.
“The biggest aspect for us is keeping the public safe—if a fire broke out, we’d be past the education point,” says Laurie Benson, an acting division manager at the DNR. “We support and value recreation on our lands. We want people to be out there, but we have to keep people on our lands safe.” The DNR does not take closures lightly. During Benson’s 15 years at the agency, it had never closed such huge swaths of land before last year. Yet in the past nine months, it’s done so twice because fire danger has been so severe. “A decision like this was really difficult. We weighed a lot of factors, but we’re doing it so these landscapes can be there in the coming years,” she says. The DNR plans to open things back up as soon as fire danger drops, but Benson doesn’t foresee that happening soon. It’s too risky.
We have to give up things we like now to avoid worse losses later. And if we don’t, the sacrifices will continue to mount.
The closures feel like a painful metaphor for what we’ll have to give up in the face of climate change: if you can’t stop yourself from sparking up a novelty campfire—especially when conditions are scary and a burn ban is in place—land managers are going to close the whole forest. We have to give up things we like now to avoid worse losses later. And if we don’t, the sacrifices will continue to mount.
On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest climate report, the most authoritative and specific one yet. The picture it painted of our future was, unsurprisingly, urgent and grim. As temperatures rise, the East Coast will see more extreme storms, and the West Coast will see more fire. Soil moisture in the Midwest will decline, and tornado season will ramp up. If you love winter, you’ll get less of it. We’ve already baked in enough emissions that the next 30 years are going to be worse than the present. And if we want to hope for a livable planet, we need to curb emissions to zero within the next ten years.
The biggest takeaway from the report was that time is wasting and action is urgent. We are going to have to change our behavior, or else catastrophic change is going to happen for us. Anything we can do now, from curbing emissions to maintaining healthy forests, will make the future less brutal. And as the report explains, there are so many areas where we need to get to work. The effort is going to require big structural changes, but it’s also going to take personal action.
If we can’t collectively change behavior for the greater good, we’re screwed. I love sitting around a campfire, telling stories and poking flames, but going without a fire isn’t such a huge sacrifice. Giving up a whole season of outdoor access, on the other hand, feels like a huge loss. And this summer could be as good as it gets for the rest of our lives.
It’s not just fire-prone eastern Washington that’s losing out. Montana enacted regulations prohibiting fishing after midafternoon, because fish are stressed and frying in the heat. Phoenix is closing trails because temperatures are too dangerous for search and rescue to go out and help struggling hikers. Toxic algae is spreading across too warm lakes, and my new nephew is breathing West Coast wildfire smoke all the way over in western Massachusetts.
I am angry and frustrated and grieving. I feel ineffective and hamstrung. Pissed at the government, at the gas companies, at the bros throwing beanbags by a fire three campsites over.
But this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about how individual actions can have broad public-health impacts, and how part of freedom is accountability and trying to act on behalf of a greater good. We get to choose if we want to sit by a campfire now or be able to sit by smoke-free rivers in future summers. The window of action is shrinking fast.