The last few summers in Seattle, as anyone who ever leaves the house will remember, have been plagued by wildfire smoke. For weeks at a time, the sky turns an apocalyptic shade of orange and breathing feels like you smoked a pack of Pall Malls and stuck your head in a wood-burning stove. It's not pleasant, and those of us in the largely un-air-conditioned Pacific Northwest are forced to choose between breathing in ash or shutting our windows and sweltering. Instead of feeling like paradise, Seattle starts to feel dirty and evil.
With a record-breaking 239 fires in Western Washington in 2019 by the beginning of May, it's going to be a very dirty and evil summer.
Last summer, the air quality in Seattle was, at times, worse than anywhere else in the world. There are obvious health consequences to this, especially for the elderly and the infirm, but these fires don't just take a toll on our physical health—they're also bad for our mental health.
In 2017, researchers at the University of Washington looked into the connection between air pollution and mental health. They found that even when controlling for factors that can compound anxiety and depression—things like excessive drinking, chronic health problems, and unemployment—when the concentration of fine particulate matter in the air increases, psychological distress goes up.
It's not hard to see why: Smoke-filled skies make it feel like the world is ending.
Wildfires are also terrible for some of the industries that keep Northwest towns afloat, including outdoor recreation, tourism, and agriculture. Even the retail and restaurant industries suffer, maybe because people just don't like going anywhere when the outside world looks like a scene from Mad Max.
When public health officials are telling us to limit our time outdoors, gyms might see more business, and nothing has motivated me to stay late at the (air-conditioned) office more than smoke, but for the most part, there's very little benefit to the increasing trend of wildfires taking over the summer. It's depressing, and scary, and bad for our health and our economy, which is why it's so odd that the Washington State Legislature failed to pass a landmark bill this year to do something about this very serious problem.
There are several reasons for the increase in wildfires. Rising temperatures and persistent drought connected to climate change mean conditions for fire are ripe. And as more people live in and use wilderness areas, they're more likely to spark fires themselves.
But an even bigger factor in this spread is that our forests are a mess—not just in Washington, but all over the West. Centuries of ill-advised fire-suppression efforts have led to the wildfire crisis we're facing now, and it is a crisis. According to a study from 2018, there are nearly 15,000 deaths in the United States connected to chronic wildfire smoke inhalation each year.
Without serious changes, that number is expected to rise to more than 40,000 in the next 80 years. This is completely our fault.
Instead of allowing fires to burn—a necessary part of the ecosystem—the government (and the people) have done everything possible not just to prevent fires but to stamp them out prematurely. Turns out, this was the wrong move: Small, manageable fires can be good for the environment—some plants actually require fire to germinate—and by unnaturally suppressing them, we've allowed decades of fuel to build up.
When these lands now catch on fire, it quickly become unmanageable and leads to conflagrations that burn hundreds of thousands of acres and destroy human lives. Last year alone, more than 100 people died in wildfires in California and more than 18,000 structures were destroyed.
This year, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and some legislators in the state senate—including Democrats Kevin Van De Wege and Christine Rolfes of the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas—pushed hard for the passage of a fire prevention bill. The bill would have increased property and casualty insurance tax rates from 2 percent to 2.5 percent, and provided money that's desperately needed, Hilary Franz, the DNR's commissioner of public lands, told me in an interview.
"It came down to the wire," Franz said. "The bill would have created about $65 million a year, which would have been very significant in helping us make sure we are implementing our forest health plan and our wildfire strategic plan. Unfortunately, the insurance industry threw its whole weight against the bill."
It never made it out of committee.
Still, there was one success: While the bill failed to move forward, the legislature did allocate $50 million from the general fund for forest health projects. "It doesn't solve the long-term challenges and the issue of us having to come back every year and beg for money, which makes it difficult to plan, but it gets us in a much better place than we have been," Franz said.
Currently, Washington State employs only 43 full-time firefighters. The extra $50 million will allow the state to hire 30 new full-time firefighters who will work on forest health when they aren't fighting fires. It will also allow the state to add two new helicopters to the seven it already has in operation.
"There is no way seven helicopters are adequate to cover the number of fires and the geography we are trying to cover," Franz said. "And they aren't brand-new; these helicopters flew during the Vietnam War. How many people are still driving the car they bought during the Vietnam War?"
Even with that $50 million—and even if the fire prevention bill had passed this session—this problem will not be solved state by state. Wildfire smoke doesn't respect borders, and much of the smoke we see in the Puget Sound region comes from California, Oregon, and Canada.
Last summer, there were about 500 wildfires in Canada per week, Franz told me. So even if there are no major fires in Washington this year (a scenario that is highly unlikely), the smoke will come from somewhere else. Last year, Franz approached authorities in British Columbia, Oregon, and California about sharing knowledge and expertise, but until both state and federal governments start to take this problem seriously, our summers are, more than likely, looking pretty well fucked.
"When the sun is out and the sky is blue, it's hard for people to remember what a crisis we have," Franz told me.
But the crisis is here, and unless our elected leaders start actually doing something about forest health, climate change, and the other factors that lead to massive conflagrations, it's only going to get worse. The forests will regenerate someday, but without action, the perfect Seattle summer will be a thing of the past.