Western Wildfires Continue As Eagle Creek Fire Prompts Finger-Pointing

Sep 9, 2017
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But back to the U.S. now, where the Western states are dealing with a disaster of its own - catastrophic forest fires. Scores of fires are burning in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana and other states. We wanted to get a sense of how this year's fire season compares to previous ones. And we also wanted to find out how climate change might be contributing to fire activity, so we called Stephen Pyne in Phoenix. He's written books about the history and management of fire. He teaches at Arizona State. And I started by asking his thoughts on the relationship between climate change and forest fire.

STEPHEN PYNE: It's somewhat like hurricanes. We know in a general way that climate change is contributing to the intensity and perhaps frequency, but it's hard to identify any particular storm. And that would be the same here. The Northwest has always had fire. You know, you need - a wet-dry cycle is what underwrites fire. It's got to be wet enough to grow stuff and then dry at some point to burn. And the Northwest goes through that cycle mostly wet, but the dry period is enough.

I think this season is a bit unusual from my perspective for two reasons. One is that the Northwest had sort of disappeared off the national scene for decades. And in the last five years or so, it has really bounced back with a vengeance. And secondly is the smoke. Smoke for so long, smoke hanging in valleys, hanging around towns, going beyond the category of nuisance to being perhaps a public health threat. That is of major interest as well.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk a bit more about causes. And I wanted to talk specifically about the Eagle Creek Fire, which erupted earlier this week in the Columbia River Gorge area outside of Portland, Ore. Now, law enforcement there have said that they believe the fire was started by a teenager tossing fireworks around this popular hiking trail. And there's been, you know, a very lively debate on social media about this because a lot of people have been arguing about, you know, the hefty punishments that they'd like to see imposed on this 15-year-old person.

But on the other hand, other people have kind of chimed in on the debate to say that, you know, forest management policies are equally to blame, that a fire likely would have started in that area anyway for other reasons, even lightning. So they point the finger at forest management policies. I just wanted to get your take on that.

PYNE: Yeah. Well, fire is interactive. You need spark and you need an appropriate setting. And, you know, you can have an area that's highly prone to fire. Everything's at maximum intensity. But if there's no spark, it doesn't happen. On the other hand, you can have lots of sparks, lots of ignitions. And if the setting isn't right, nothing happens. So the power of fire is really in its power to propagate. It spreads. And even if you think of it as a kind of malicious act or accident, it's got to have conditions to spread. In this case, I think both sides are right, and they're both wrong if you push them too far.

MARTIN: What kinds of conversations do you think we should be having that perhaps have not been as widely discussed as you'd like?

PYNE: Well, I think land use is the key. Climate change is certainly a factor. All the projections are that it's going to get worse. But how we live on the land, how we build cities, there's no reason to have towns burning from fires. We've solved the problem of burning cities a long time ago. We just haven't mustered the social and political will to enforce the same kinds of things we imposed in cities to prevent our cities from burning down. That's a discussion that needs to take place. And it's a legitimately political discussion. We're talking about public assets, and in many cases, public safety.

MARTIN: That is Stephen Pyne. He's written many books about the history and management of fire. He teaches at Arizona State. And we reached him at his home near Phoenix, Ariz. Professor Pyne, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PYNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.