When Mark Twain arrived in Olympia on an August day in 1895 his welcome party had an apology for him.
“I am sorry the smoke is so dense that you cannot see our mountains and our forests, which are now on fire,” said John Miller Murphy, the editor of the local paper.
Twain was experiencing a fairly common summer occurrence in the 19th-century Puget Sound Lowlands, as the millions of surrounding acres of forests followed their natural burn cycle, occasionally filling the region with smoke and blocking the mountain views that Twain’s welcome party had hoped to impress upon him.
Those natural fires went away soon after Twain's trip thanks to our government's fire suppression efforts, effectively stopping smoke from ever filling spaces like Seattle. We've spent a century unnaturally suppressing wildfires, an effort that we are now reckoning with by experiencing bigger and more destructive fires. And more smoke in our cities.
Smoke in Seattle is not an abnormality, it's the absence of smoke for over a century that is strange.
Susan Prichard, a research scientist with the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, said Washington's forests are catching up on that lack of fires by burning hotter and bigger every year.
"We did put out fires in the middle part of the 20th century," Prichard said. "These western wildfires are basically catching up on a deficit of fire and we are actually still not burning as much area every year on average as used to burn, which is pretty shocking.”
Our government's effort to stop all wildfires has increased the amount of dead wood and other fire fuel in our woods and changed how the forest itself grows. Without the natural thinning of trees, there are now fewer open grassland areas and the trees grow closer together, making for hotter and more explosive fires when they do ignite. Watch this TED Talk from ecologist Paul Hessburg to see how much we've fucked up our forests.
Our manipulation of the forests is made worse by man-made climate change, which is now creating longer, hotter, and drier summers that only increase the risk of what Hessburg calls "megafires." The ones like 2014's Carlton Complex Fire, the largest single wildfire in Washington history. It burned over 200,000 acres, caused nearly $100 million in damages, and scared the shit out of everyone living in Okanogan County or the surrounding area.
These huge fires are the environment's natural response to crowded forests and a warming climate. A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 studied the accumulation of charcoal during the past 3,000 years and found that our suppression efforts had caused a dramatic drop off in wildfires, which is now being reversed.
“Since the late 1800s, human activities and the ecological effects of recent high fire activity caused a large, abrupt decline in burning similar to the LIA fire decline. Consequently, there is now a forest “fire deficit” in the western United States attributable to the combined effects of human activities, ecological, and climate changes. Large fires in the late 20th and 21st-century fires have begun to address the fire deficit, but it is continuing to grow," the study's authors wrote.
Prichard said the smoke Seattle is experiencing today may be thicker than the smoke of the natural wildfires during earlier centuries.
"There might have been less fuel to burn and maybe a little less smoke than if we have these stand-replacing fires in crowded forests," Prichard said. "So the magnitude of smoke could have been different if on average grasses and pine litter were burning instead of full trees.”
Prichard said each wildfire we put out can lead to bigger fires in the future.
"Every time we actively put out fire it has huge ramifications for the next fire because fuel accumulates and forests become more continuous across landscapes. And so we are predisposing our region to more severe fires by putting out all of the fires," Prichard said.
Shouldn't we then welcome smoke into our city, this natural visitor that we stupidly squashed for a century only to see it come back?
Prichard, speaking from her home in the smoke-filled Methow Valley in Central Washington, said Seattlites still have a right to be angry about this week's heavy smoke.
"I think it’s impossible to not be grumpy with smoke," Prichard said. "It affects us so much. Here we are in what could be a beautiful summer day in Winthrop, Washington. We can’t see the mountains we love because they are shrouded in dense smoke. My voice is lower because of smoke exposure. Some people also have the beginnings of a cold, they have sore throats, itchy eyes. It just makes you feel rotten. And then about 30 percent of households have someone who has severe health consequences of smoke."
But keep in mind—the reason you never remember a smoky summer is not because wildfire smoke is unnatural in Seattle, it's because humans seem to fuck up our environment wherever we step foot.