A Canadian Firefighter Sheds Light on the Smoke in the East

Canada is on fire, and Americans took advantage of this smoke to drum up climate change like William Booth did for the Salvation Army. The orange skies and smell of the smoke have scared people living in Eastern U.S. – and it’s not surprising. A Canadian firefighter known as “The Hotshot Wake Up”, who tweets under the handle, helped put things into perspective.

If Hotshot’s claims are true, they would be in line with the forest management policies that have been in place for quite some time in the U.S. The fire has its place in the ecosystem. It can be very healthy. Consider serotinous coneifers. Serotinous is an excellent Scrabble word. Serotinous conifers need an event, such as a wildfire, to cause their pine cones to open and release seeds.

Land management agencies can let fires burn if they are not in danger of destroying a town or power lines, utilities, or other “values”. It works well for forests near “healthy ranges”, but, as every Boy Scout knows, more fuel means a bigger fire. It is common to see larger and more destructive forest fires these days. This makes New Yorkers believe that the end of the world is near.

How do you create fires to turn the Big Apple’s skyline a beautiful shade of burnt umber, orange or brown? This is not a crayon that you didn’t use in elementary school. It is a real color. The Great Fire of 1911, also called “The Big Burn” or “The Big Blowup”, is responsible for a large part of the problem. This disaster occurred long before industrialization threatened to destroy us all. The 1,736 fires destroyed around three million acres, and 85 people were killed.

According to the story, the smoke traveled across the U.S. eastward and reached Greenland. This was the beginning of the policy to contain all wildfires as quickly as possible. In my short time as a volunteer firefighter, “initial attacks” were part of my duties. Find, contain, and control the fire as soon as possible. The dead plants and trees piled up. The environmental movement made “logging” a four-letter term. And then the bark beetle appeared. I’ve seen huge stands of forest in Utah or Colorado where the bark beetle has killed large swaths. They were waiting for a careless camper or a lightning strike.

Funny aside: I was sent to cut down beetle infested trees near Park City on state land. The plan was to cut down the trees, then drop them on the ground and limb and buck them. A second crew would then come and wrap up the pieces of wood in plastic to stop the beetles from spreading. I’ll never forget that well-heeled and well-dressed Park City resident who said I had no rights to cut down his “forest”. I tried to explain to him what we were doing. He remained unmoved and vowed to make a complaint. Whatever. This should give you an idea of how these issues are viewed.

The dead trees should theoretically decompose, nourishing the soil. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, too, played fast and loose when it came to funding for fire prevention in California. It’s a good idea, but California and the Intermountain West has been suffering from a severe drought for most of the past twenty years. We get kindling instead of decomposition.

The dead trees in the forest were so dense that it was impossible to walk through certain parts. The forest was a box of matches with all the dead trees and standing ones. When a fire burns through a forest in Utah, native trees and plants are replaced by cheatgrass. This is a more annoying plant than anything else.

The Mustang Fire, which ravaged the Ashley National Forest in 2002, was the year I began my career as a firefighter. The fire ravaged 22,000 acres of forest and threatened Dutch John. The fire was so intense that the headlights of some structure engines were melted. In 2007, the Neola North Fire claimed three lives, ravaged 43,511 acres of land and forced multiple evacuations. The fire also threatened the water treatment plant for the Ute Tribe. I can remember it well, because I was present.

Hotshot is right to let the fire “do what it does,” and this can be effective in certain situations. The drought in the U.S. hasn’t helped, but there have been droughts here for millions of year. It didn’t work to contain and control all the fires, or to implement policies that were essentially suicide for forests. If Canada’s policies on resource management are similar to those in the United States (and i suspect that they are), then that would explain the smoke that is present, and would indicate that these fires were caused by humans. It had nothing to with climate change caused by humans.