Staring into the Fire

Lone Fir  installed in Pacific Science Center’s central courtyard

Lone Fir installed in Pacific Science Center’s central courtyard

Earlier this summer, in Pacific Science Center’s central courtyard, a crane swung a burnt Douglas fir 60 feet in the air, past the admission gates, and landed it gingerly on a stainless steel frame. This tree, an art piece entitled Lone Fir, sits there today. I brought it there as part of a larger project called The Smoke Season that was designed to help introduce Seattle to its new neighbor: wildfire. 

After Lone Fir landed, I departed down Interstate 5 into Oregon and California. I’d seen a lot of forest fire damage in my home state of Washington, having visited the ruins of the Jolly Mountain fire in the Cascades. That was the 2017 blaze that burned over 35,000 acres of the Wenatchee National Forest and created a smoke cloud that blanketed Seattle. From that devastated forest I selected Lone Fir for the Pacific Science Center and other burned trees for the Smoke Season exhibit across the grounds of the Seattle Center. Now I wanted to learn more about wildfires. Over two weeks, I made a loop like a noose through towns including Paradise and Santa Rosa and wild places like Yosemite and the Redwoods bordering the Pacific Coast to see how other areas withstand and recover from flames. 

Here are some of the things I saw. 

The Roadside Fuelbreak and Its Limits

In forestry and firefighting, a fuelbreak is a strip of forest where underbrush has been removed, stands of trees have been thinned and the lower branches of larger trees have been delimbed. The resulting lack of combustible fuel makes it difficult for wildfires to spread. During active wildfires, firefighters build fuelbreaks in hopes of setting a limit to where flames may travel. Foresters will do the same by identifying points on a landscape where thinning trees can ensure that one patch of forest will be safe even if its neighbor is burning.

Roads act as fuelbreaks, as well. A four-lane freeway or a single-lane dirt road can stop wildfire. But, as I drove south, it became clear that people believed a line of pavement was not always enough. In Oregon and Northern California, trees had been culled from the roadside. Some lay on the ground waiting to be collected; others were already removed, and only the stumps remained. Beneath Mount Shasta, trees closest to the roads were marked with white blazes, waiting to be felled. 

It was late June, and I could already feel the heat that would only increase during the summer months. Winding through the mountains outside of Redding, CA, I made out a ridgeline with burnt trees stretching into the distance. As I glided around a curve, the former fire revealed the extent of its appetite. To my left, on the far side of the Interstate, everything had burned. The earth was ash gray and punctuated by the blackened exclamation points of dead evergreens. The four lanes of freeway and 80 feet of median--what one might imagine as the World’s Greatest Fuelbreak--had done nothing to stop this fire. The conflagration to the left side of the road had nonchalantly crossed traffic and marched across to the right. The entire valley and surrounding mountains had burned. I kept moving through this wasteland, waiting for it to become a memory in my rearview mirror. 

Paradise No More

Trailer park. Paradise, CA.

Trailer park. Paradise, CA.

Some hours later, I was sitting at a picnic table on the western edge of Paradise, California drinking a soda at a taco truck. Around me, hard-working Americans in steel-toed boots and yellow safety vests ate burritos and discussed the day’s activities in Spanish and English. The cars gleamed red and silver in the sunshine. Previously, the town was home to over 25,000 residents, but it burned to the ground in the course of one short morning in November of 2018. 

Colleagues had been to Paradise earlier in the year, and I’d asked them to film the aftermath of the fire. The footage they’d sent was difficult to comprehend. I knew that a forest fire and a fire in a city are two different things. A city fire burns hotter. Chemicals--stored in a garage or housed in a car engine--combust ferociously and reach temperatures in excess of 1000 °F. When a wildfire burns a tree, its blackened trunk remains. A living fir and a burnt fir somehow remain linked. But when a house burns, another kind of transformation takes place, and it is no longer recognizable as a home. 

In fact, urban fires burn so hot that most things you think you would recognize have been vaporized or turned to ash. A glass vase will puddle on the ground, and a plastic hose to water your lawn or a bookshelf filled with novels will leave no trace. Mostly what remains is oxidized metal, flecked in oranges and grays. 

After finishing my drink, I drove up Paradise’s main road beneath a patchy canopy of burnt evergreens where two out of three retail establishments had been reduced to rubble. I turned into the remains of a trailer park. Workers wearing respirators and white jumpsuits were either removing debris or hosing the site down to ensure that toxic dust wouldn’t spread. The trailers were all gone. What remained was metal and brick: Husks of dishwashers, warped cast iron fences, a van sitting on its axles with its tires melted away. The community that once lived within this forest had been turned into climate refugees and were scattered who knew where.

I stopped beneath a temporary awning and chatted with a woman named Kristen. She had a pollution monitor attached to her lapel that crackled like a Geiger counter as we spoke. Everyone had become extremely conscious about worker safety in the wake of health complaints from the clean-up after 9/11; hence, the respirators, the booties, the monitors and protocols. All the waste on the sites was being piled into dump trucks and sealed beneath tarps. From there, it would be carted to the dump. 

Kristen explained that parts of the trailer park had been “remediated”. The ground had been raked clean of all debris, and wooden dowels had been staked in the ground, their tops painted in green or red to define if the surrounding land was safe to enter. As we spoke, we were surrounded by the busy sounds of people at work--the scrape of a backhoe, the beeping of a vehicle backing up. The possessions and memories of 26,000 people had burned on the land that surrounded us. 

I couldn’t help but ask: “Are people really going to move back in here?”

With an optimism that bellied the surroundings, Kristen responded: “That’s the plan.”

Santa Rosa Rebuild

Date Palm. Santa Rosa, CA.

Date Palm. Santa Rosa, CA.

Days later, driving north on I-101, I came into Santa Rosa. In October of 2017, the Tubbs fire swept through this city, killing 22 and burning neighborhoods to the ground. The steadying, synthetic voice of my navigation suggested I exit the freeway and led me, I assumed, into a neighborhood that would have the same aura of destruction as Paradise.

Instead, I found something entirely different. An ersatz subdivision of tract houses rose up with dirt lots in front and pine fences hiding back yards. Further in, the houses were half-complete, revealing plastic sheeting or plywood walls. Porta Potties and work trucks lined the curbs. Here, pollution monitors and hazmat suits were replaced by people working more recognizable, comforting trades (contractors, carpenters, and electricians). There was nothing burnt in sight. 

I wound my way further in until I saw a single date palm, perhaps 40 feet tall. It sat snuggly between the foundations of two new buildings. Its fronds were green and lush, but its long trunk was carbonized black. In this entire community, this was the only remnant the fire had left. Hundreds of lives had been upended by the conflagration and millions of dollars spent to rebuild, but the palm lived on. A new community was being constructed by its side, right where the last one had burnt to the ground.  

Redwoods and Resilience

Burnt Redwood. Humboldt County, CA.

Burnt Redwood. Humboldt County, CA.

Late in the trip, when June had turned to July, in Humboldt county California, I came upon a family of four in the parking lot of The Garden Club of America Redwood Grove. A branch from one of the trees that towered above had fallen on the hood of their car. Coulant leaked onto the pavement. The boy in the family explained that everything was OK, while his dad called for a tow. 

I’d spent the trip studying what different ecosystems look like when they have burned in the recent past, but I hadn’t seen how a forest appeared years or decades after a fire. I didn’t know if I’d find old fire here, but it seemed like a logical place to start. The wind whipped overhead, and the branches groaned as they scraped each other in the canopy. Within fifty feet of leaving the parking lot, I found what I was searching for. A Redwood, perhaps fifty feet in circumference stood in the distance, a black ring around its trunk. Smaller unburnt Redwoods grew up around this singular tree. 

As I approached, I glanced toward the tree’s crown, and watched it sway with its companions. Was it struck by lightning? Or had a fire come through decades ago before the other trees sprouted from pinecones? I couldn’t tell. But like the date palm in Santa Rosa, it was still standing, still living. What more could it ask for? 

I left the Redwood and returned to the parking lot. The family was still there, the tow truck some two hours away. I offered to give them a ride to their campsite, and they clambered into my car. We drove slowly beneath the trees with the windows down. The children offered up anecdotes of their vacation and expressed wonder at National Parks and the natural beauty that surrounded them. When I left them a few miles further up the road, I felt some happiness knowing they wouldn’t be stranded. Just like so many of the people I’d met or watched work in the previous weeks, I was trying to help, even if just a little. 

Hours later, crossing into Oregon and closing the loop I had begun the month before, my throat tightened as I thought of how much seemed to have burned in California. In the landscapes I’d traversed, huge efforts were underway to prepare for fire or to rebuild after its passage. I could see the logic of reducing the risks of uncontrolled wildfire. I could also appreciate the resilience of communities that worked to rebuild after a conflagration. But it also seemed that if a wildfire could burn a town to the ground once, it would be hard to stop it from returning again. 

The Key to the Forest

The key to the forest.  @BigPowerProject

The key to the forest. @BigPowerProject

They gave us the key to the forest.

Not a key to an enclosed space, a home or a car, or some other even smaller space that protects what you hold most dear--a safe or locket. No, a key to the forest, a key that opens something big, a landscape filled with mountains, cliff faces, trees, and streams. Little creatures too: mushrooms and owls, fawns and horseflies.

The key to the forest doesn’t just open onto the living, natural world. It also opens onto the land of the dead. For with this key, one enters into the Teanaway Community Forest, a forest that was brutally burned during the 2017 Jolly Mountain fire.

Perhaps, you remember the Jolly Mountain fire? It was the first wildfire to truly blanket the Puget Sound with smoke. It turned sunny August days into a thick miasma of gray with the orange puck of the sun hovering above. Perhaps you remember August of 2018, as well, when the smoke season returned and removed a slice from summer?

This Friday, we will slip this key into a padlock and pull open a gate. A small convoy of SUV’s and a logging truck will wind a few miles and 1,200 feet up a single-lane, dirt-road to a fork.

It is with these previous years in mind, we will do what comes next. We will fell 15 trees that have been standing dead for the past two years. We will hitch them to a winch and drag them to the road. There, they will be divided into 40-foot segments and loaded onto the open bed of the logging truck. (I know of no gentle language for this work.)

Three days later, on June 10th, these trees will be driven west on I-90, crossing Snoqualmie Pass and the towns of North Bend, Issaquah, and Bellevue. They will traverse Lake Washington and turn north onto I-5 and exit on Mercer Street before making a final, straight run west toward Seattle Center.

Teanaway Community Forest.  @casswalkerphoto

Teanaway Community Forest. @casswalkerphoto

The Smoke Season
We’re bringing these burned trees to the city to create a haven for dialogue about the fifth season that has entered the lives of the citizens of Puget Sound: The Smoke Season. It frightens me to write this, but it seems important to be clear: if this summer is like the previous two, there is more smoke to come.

Smoke is a wily substance. It cannot be touched. It provides no reaction if you strike out at it or raise your voice. It burns your eyes and lungs. It suffocates. And then it disappears. You almost forget that it was there. You almost forget that it never used to be there. The trees, though, they remember. They couldn’t move when the fire swirled around in their canopies and consumed the bark on their trunks.

These trees will be placed in three installations across Seattle Center’s campus:

  • The first, Lone Fir, will stand 40’ tall amidst the white arches of Pacific Science Center’s inner courtyard, a single tree, standing in for the 35,000 acres of forest that burned during the Jolly Mountain fire.  

  • The second, Distress Signal, is a giant SOS written with carbonized logs in 52,000 point font; it will sit directly to the east on the Broad Street lawn. This piece is so large, that we are not clear if it will be legible from the ground. Hopefully, together, we will decipher its meaning.

  • The final piece, Future Shadows--also on Broad Street--is comprised of four burnt Douglas fir laid at the base of four living London planetrees, a quiet space to meditate on the fragile balance of our time.

Pacific Science Center will be accompanying these art installations with an exhibition entitled Wildfire that will provide the public with deeper insights into the topic--its causes and impacts on environmental and human health. The installations and exhibition will run from June 15th to September 15th, 2019. (And we’d love to see you at the June 14th opening. Details here.)

I’ll be writing regularly on the topics of smoke and wildfire in the months to come. If you’d like to follow along, subscribe from this link.

Thank you for joining us and for being curious and concerned about the world in which we live!

Ted Youngs

175 and Rising. The News from Seattle.

Air quality. Seattle, WA. August, 22, 2018.

Air quality. Seattle, WA. August, 22, 2018.

The News from China

Just over a decade ago, in an inventive act of soft diplomacy, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing placed a pollution monitor on its roof. Every hour, on the hour, with the precision of a Swiss watch, readings on the air quality of China’s capital were published, via Twitter, to the world.

More often than not, @BeijingAir made (and makes) for grim reading. PM 2.5 — an indicator of the smallest particles that may cause asthma and other chronic lung conditions — often stagnated for days in the “unhealthy” region of over 100 parts-per-million.

Yet, when reading this feed from across the Pacific, I often registered a double happiness. An egotistical happiness that an ocean stood between Seattle and the news from @BeijingAir. I was safe. My family was safe. Another people’s suffering was not my own. A patriotic happiness, too, that my government maintained a moral compass. With a soft-hand, the U.S. stepped forward and engaged in meaningful, science-based efforts to broadcast the truth, one post at a time.

These days, my optimism is somewhat tempered.

Jolly Mountain Fire. August, 2017.

Jolly Mountain Fire. August, 2017.

The News from Seattle

During August, 2017, Seattle, the State of Washington — and much of the Western US — was blanketed in a thick layer of smoke. Pollution readings that I had associated with an industrializing Asia had come home. Millions of acres of trees — from the Yukon to California — were consumed by flame. The fetid air we breathed wasn’t the bi-product of chemical factories or coal power plants, it was the residue of death.

August, 2018 proved to be no different. 688 active forest fires in British Columbia. 2,700 square miles of fire in California. In Seattle, we hunkered down beneath a monochromatic haze.

It is worth noting that, traditionally, August is the month in which Washingtonians most fully live within our landscape of mountains and water. Our visions are filled with islands on the Sound and snow-capped volcanoes on the horizon. Yet, all this natural beauty sat beneath a veil of smoke. Air pollution readings were at 175 (“unhealthy”) and rising.

The most proximate landmarks disappeared. Conversations went like this:

“I couldn’t even see Mercer Island.”

“I couldn’t even see Vashon.”

“I couldn’t even see West Seattle.”

In the midst of this choking blindness, I wanted to see. I wanted to see where the smoke came from. And I wanted to witness what remained when the flames receded.

The News from Jolly Mountain

So, abruptly, one Tuesday evening, with little warning to my family, I shoved a sleeping bag, a few quarts of water and a headlamp into the trunk of a car and drove east over Snoqualmie Pass toward Cle Elum. From there, I left the highway and proceeded on two lane roads past the small towns of Roslyn and Ronald toward Jolly Mountain, where fire burned over 35,000 acres the summer before.

The air remained smokey but with less of the cloying density of the city. When I cut the headlights and parked at the opening to a forest service road a little before midnight, the Big Dipper gave a faint greeting from above. I crawled into the back seat and slept until dawn.

I had a printout, pulled at random from the internet, of the “soil burn severity” from Jolly Mountain. It showed a topographical map of the region touched by the fire with an overlay of the relative severity of the burn. When I woke, I consulted it, searching for a logging road that would direct me into a red zone where even the soil would be “destroyed”.

Jolly Mountain, soil burn severity map.

Jolly Mountain, soil burn severity map.

I suppose if you search for destruction, you can’t help but find it. That was certainly my case on this early morning. The road I chose rose through parched pine forests, the trees stacked tightly together like a crowd waiting for the gates to open at a soccer stadium. Though the burn hadn’t touched these hillsides, many of the trees were standing dead. Their branches curled down and inward with dessicated pine needles in orange and brown.

It didn’t take long; however, to meet the burn.

August, 2018. Dead trees standing after the violent caress of flame.

August, 2018. Dead trees standing after the violent caress of flame.

Coming around a bend — Michael Pollan chattering about hallucinogens on the car stereo — the forest abruptly came to an end. Up through the windshield, I could see a patchwork of black stumps reaching toward the top of the ridgeline. This same vision surged in a repeated pattern below. A tilted plain of ash and carbon, bisected by the thin line of the road on which I traveled.

“OK,” I thought, “here it is.”

I eased forward, pulling the car around a left hand curve, and the forest returned. It was parched by months without rain but was thick and alive. The fire had licked a path of destruction down the hillside. But whatever its algorithm — of wind, of humidity, topography, and temperature — it could only consume so much. Some logic defined what died and what was saved, but the specifics I couldn’t hope to unearth a year after the event.

All I could do was keep driving.

Eventually, the road ended at a plateau. There was an empty dirt clearing with room for four or five cars. I parked and surveyed a clear-cut hillside with thick grass and shrubs directly to the south. Where I was in relationship to the red marks on my printout was far from clear, but a single-track trail, rutted from motorcycle tires continued into the wilderness. I started walking.

The ground was covered by a thick layer of ash, and within a dozen steps, it blew up over my shoes and socks, coloring them gray. I hiked upward for the better part of thirty minutes. More than once, I dropped off the side of the trail and walked through stands of blackened trees. Despite recent flames, the undercarriage was green and vigorous with reseeded shrubs and saplings. I startled a pair of deer feeding. But when I froze, they returned to their grazing.

At the top of Sasse Ridge, I looked down 300 feet into a three-sided bowl. The far walls were steep and held a living forest. Down in its bottom was a different story. Hundreds of blackened tree trunks lay, blown over like a pile of expended match sticks. I had found a red zone. I left the trail and slid down the hillside. Soot and an unconsolidated scree field made the going slick and slightly unnerving. I crossed a shallow stream and stepped into what I can only think of as a hell without humans.

The earth was a barren red. Not a single tree was standing. Carbonized trunks, 70 feet long, lay on the ground in seemingly parallel lines, as if they were a series of dominos that had cascaded down together. The trees had brought their root balls with them as they fell, pulling them up and out of the surrounding earth, so they punctuated the landscape as a series of spectral mounds. (A video of this haunting landscape is here:

I wove my way toward the center of the clearing and sat for a time in the dirt. There was a distant buzzing of insects in the forest, and when I looked closely, I noticed the bunches of glossy leaves were emerging at odd intervals from the ashes. Fire, it is said, leads to rebirth.

I thought of the hundred thousand or more people who, in the next hour, would receive a pithy tweet from the pollution monitor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. And I looked around at last year’s destruction and thought of all the fires that were filling the lives of Americans and Canadians throughout the West with smoke. At that time — and as I write — one thing remains exceedingly clear to me: We are all in this together.