Here we are again, hiding indoors instead of heading out on our usual hikes and camping trips. Staring out through windows at hazy silhouettes of buildings, trees, landscapes. In the mountains, Search and Rescue team members don N-95 masks to rescue hikers who become disoriented by poor visibility.
We are the lucky ones. The ones who have homes and windows, the ones who can choose to stay indoors, the ones whose homes and memories have not been swallowed up by flames.
How did we get here?
It’s easy to try and blame a single cause. In reality, it’s more complicated.
The climate is changing. Some places that were cooler are warmer, some places that were wetter are drier, some places that were rarely visited by forest pests are now being gnawed and nibbled to death. But fire has always been part of these landscapes. What has changed is how often they burn, and the intensity of those fires.
Until a couple of hundred years ago, forests burned more frequently. Some tree species adapted to these fires, even depending on them to open their cones and create openings in the forest for young trees to grow. Indigenous Peoples were also part of the fire cycle, burning small areas within their territories regularly to burn off dry grasses and dead plants before they could become hazardous. Even early pioneers set fires as a method of firefighting, by lighting smaller fires around homesteads to control burn up any fuel on the ground and stop wildfires from advancing. This was how the phrase “fight fire with fire” came to be.
But over time, as more homes spread across the landscape, people became afraid of fire. Instead of setting small fires, we put them out as fast as we could. Governments focused their efforts and budgets on fire suppression, instead of fire management. And they banned Indigenous Peoples from managing fires the way they did for thousands of years.
The good news is the trend is slowly reversing. Some governments and departments are trying to put fire back on the landscape, and some Indigenous communities, like the Xeni Gwet’in and Yunesit’in First Nations in British Columbia and the Karuk and Yurok tribes in California, are helping them.
For now, we wait for the smoke to clear, for the rain to come, for the firefighters to save what they can. And for those of us fortunate enough for our lives to be touched only by the smoke, but not the fire, we do what we can from afar. We can support our friends and neighbours, we can push our leaders to address them. And we can make sure we never take our forests for granted.