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.
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”.
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.
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: https://vimeo.com/289158590.)
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.