09/25/2012 - 14:34

Fired up

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...

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-- White Salmon, Washington

"I smell smoke," I told my husband.

"Me too."

We ran outside and saw gray clouds billowing over the ridge to our west. Smoke was already visible in the air around us. We knew in an instant that it was a wildfire, and the wind was blowing it straight toward us.

While my husband jumped in our pickup for a quick reconnaissance mission, I phoned our neighbor Les, a local fire commissioner who was monitoring his scanner. He reported that crews were scrambling to construct fire lines while helicopters dropped water and fire retardant in an effort to slow the blaze's progress. By nightfall, 40 families had been evacuated and another 400 were told to be ready to leave on a moment's notice. We gathered our pets, hitched our trailer to our pickup, and started thinking about what we would take with us if the fire got closer.

The "Highway 141 fire" (named for the southern Washington road where it started, possibly by a vehicle dragging a chain that sent sparks into dry grass) remained entirely uncontained by the following evening. But the winds had calmed, providing a temporary but timely reprieve for everyone in harm's way, all by the time President Obama delivered his acceptance speech earlier this month at the Democratic National Convention.

A few words in Obama's speech rang especially true for me that night: "And yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax," he said. "More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children's future."

That was a direct response to the mocking words uttered by Mitt Romney in his own nomination acceptance speech a week earlier: "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans." (Laughter.) "And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family."

Hey Mitt, what would help me and my family is to reduce our risk of catastrophic wildfires and to protect our diminishing supplies of freshwater. Water availability and fire danger are the two biggest concerns for most people in my rural community, regardless of their political persuasion.

Of course, wildfires are natural processes that occur regularly in the arid American West. Climate change won't necessarily mean more wildfires in every setting (that depends on precipitation patterns as well as temperatures), but global fire models predict that at least 38 percent of the planet will see more fire activity over the next 30 years if climate trends continue, while only 8 percent will see less activity. (The models can't yet predict what will happen for the other 54 percent.)

And although you can't blame any individual fire (or hurricane or flood or drought) on a warming climate, hotter and drier summers load the dice in favor of more intense wildfires. It's probably no coincidence that 2012 is not only the warmest year on record in the contiguous United States, according to the National Climatic Data Center, but also the worst wildfire year. At the time of publishing, more than 8.6 million acres have already burned, and the National Interagency Fire Center is reporting 28 active large fires across the West.

Climate change is not just a cloud looming over some distant future in which the temperature might rise by a dangerous 2 degrees Celsius. It is already happening, and it's personal. Not just for my neighbors, many of whom now look out on scorched earth from their porches, but also for the 3.7 million Americans who live within one uncomfortable meter of high tide; for the customers of the 25 public water systems in drought-stricken Texas that could run out of water in 180 days or less; and for countless other people at risk of losing their lives, health, homes, businesses, or simply their peace of mind to extreme weather events.

"You look out the window and you see climate change in action," says Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in a clip from "PBS NewsHour." "This is the way it gets manifested."

Although Romney has conceded that "the world is getting warmer" and that "human activity contributes to that warming," he continues to insist that there is no scientific consensus on the severity of the risk and that slashing carbon emissions would be too costly. But what of the millions that are spent annually to fight fires in the United States? Romney has not specified how he would reduce taxes and the federal deficit, but you can be sure it would require massive cuts to discretionary spending. The November election offers a stark choice between what former president Bill Clinton characterized, in his recent convention speech, as two competing philosophies: "you're on your own" versus "we're all in this together."

Good luck fighting a 1,600-acre wildfire on your own, or even with a few neighbors. It took 630 firefighters, seven days, and more than $2.7 million -- including Federal Emergency Management Agency funds -- to put out the Highway 141 fire. But it was worth it: No lives or homes or major transmission lines were lost, and the cost of doing nothing would have been far greater.

Like a raging fire, climate change is something you can't tackle on your own. It requires a collective, rapid response with every available resource, before things get so far out of hand that all is lost. And yet it's a natural human impulse to continue with business as usual -- hoping, maybe even believing, that nothing terrible is about to happen.

On that afternoon when my husband and I got our first whiffs of smoke, it was difficult to decide whether we should begin packing or keep working on a remodeling project that was under way. "It seems silly to paint a room that might go up in flames tomorrow," I told him. We discussed the situation while I searched madly on the Internet for more information about the fire. In retrospect, my behavior looks a lot like the "continued debate and investigation" that Romney calls for in response to climate change.

After making a few emergency preparations, we calmed our nerves by picking green beans and cucumbers in our garden, and making a batch of pickles -- telling ourselves that the fire was still a few miles away and probably would never make it to our house, despite the hot breeze coming from that direction and the strange absence of bird calls. In those moments, we thought about what really matters: each other (don't forget to grab the wedding photos!), our friends and family, our community, our pets, the birds and the beans, and all the other priceless and irreplaceable living things that sustain us. We're all in this together.