Zac VanderLey – Staff Writer
The lush, green forests of the Evergreen State have faded to gray. Over 790,000 acres of vibrant land has been torched at the tongues of fire. Life seems to have taken on characteristics from Jack London’s bleak, naturalist novels.
The wildfires, which started in California, have spread throughout the Pacific Northwest, forcing civilians to evacuate their homes and keeping firefighters occupied for days on end. Washington possessed the lowest air quality in the world on September 14th. Outdoor church services were canceled, parks were abandoned, and even the Seattle Mariners were forced to postpone their series with the San Francisco Giants due to the dangerous air levels. According to Channon Visscher, chemistry and planetary science professor, the fine matter in the air makes it difficult and thus dangerous to breathe.
“The smoke is made up of small particulates. There is some ash as well,” Visscher said. “Gasses are also released but the majority of the danger comes from the small particulates.”
The extremely low levels of air quality in Washington have forced some sensitive populations to stay indoors or evacuate. COVID-19, the ever-present entity, has also thrown a wrinkle in this year’s fires. Visscher called the smoke a “risk multiplier” since it harmfully affects the lungs. According to the CDC, the inhalation of wildfire smoke inflames the lungs and makes one more likely to contract different types of lung infections, including COVID-19.
The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to wildfires. They were a common natural occurrence even before people settled in this part of the world.
“What makes places like California and Washington prime locations for fire are the dry forests, along with longer drought and low humidity,” Visscher said.
The strong winds from the mountains push and spread the fire. Under these conditions, large fires can be started by anything from campfires to lightning. One expecting couple in Northern California had plans for an ornate gender reveal. They took the trend to the next level with a smoke bomb, which caught fire and spread to the dry grass of El Dorado Ranch Park. Over 20,000 people have been forced to evacuate from to this man-made fire—one that is hardly contained, according to the New York Times.
Alex Bakker, brother of Dordt junior Anneka Bakker, works as a forestry technician fighting fires in Northern California. Since May 26, Bakker has been cutting down brush and other large overgrowth in attempts to control the fires.
“Fires need heat, oxygen, and fuel to survive,” said Bakker. “If we can remove its fuel, then it won’t spread. That’s where my job comes in.”
Bakker sometimes flies into sites on a helicopter. The hikes to sites range from 30-45 minutes. Each firefighter carries a 35-pound pack while wearing thick, heavy clothes. They work fourteen-hour shifts, waking up at 5:30 am and ending at 10:00 pm. Bakker is currently containing a fire in Happy Camp, California, that burned down more than half of the city.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty dangerous. Sometimes I’m chest deep in blackberry bushes, and the fire can move very quickly with an increasing flame length,” Bakker said. He was not certain if this year’s fires were necessarily worse than previous years, however, he did indicate that the fire’s behavior is changing.
Some people have pointed to climate change as the penultimate cause of the extra fires.
“The fires won’t add too much heat to global warming, but the change in climate has made conditions for fire more common,” Professor Visscher said.
The smoke from the fires actually produces a cooling effect on the planet because of the cloud it forms in the atmosphere. However, the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide from the flames remain destructive.
While Washington and California seem like an entirely different country compared to the flat, rural, cornfields of Sioux Center, Iowa, smoke has reached across the Midwest.
“It’s sad because that’s my home,” Riley Van Hulzen, a junior education major from Lynden, Washington said. “My Dad will send me a picture of the haze, and what can I do about it?”
Late night driving has become dangerous due to the limited vision. Outdoor activities like hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking have seen less interest.
“I remember when I went home last summer, I was looking forward to seeing the mountains, and the smoke had blocked Mt. Baker,” Van Hulzen said. “It was a cloud of sadness.”