What's Tony Thinking

Fires, Then and Now


I recently finished Ivan Doig’s wonderful novel English Creek. Set in Montana in the summer of 1939, it’s a coming of age story. Nearly 15-year-old Jick McCaskill is on the cusp of manhood, close but not quite there. His father is the chief ranger of “The Two” National Forest. A wildfire rages as the novel ends. Jick isn’t old enough to be on the front-lines, but is in fire camp helping with the cooking and trying to fathom the mysteries of the adult world.

Here’s an excerpt. “A quantity of smoke is an unsettling commodity. The human being does not like to think its environs are inflammable. My mother had the memory that when she was a girl at Noon Creek the smoke from the 1910 fires brought a Bible-toting neighbor, a homesteader, to the Reese doorstep to announce: ‘This is the wrath of God. The end of the world is come.’ Daylight diminishing out to a sickly green color and no distinct difference between night and day, I suppose it could make you wonder.”

There is something apocalyptic about fires raging out of control, about a shroud of smoke obscuring the known world, making day into night. “An unsettling commodity,” as young Jick put it.

We might say of the current fire season that “this too shall pass,” and it will. But each passing year now seems different and worse, more nearly apocalyptic. Climate change has made the fire season longer with fires that burn hotter. But people, and COVID, have pitched in.

As I noted last week, COVID cooped-up folks have shown up in far greater numbers into the National Forests and Wilderness areas around here, but not just here. Now, it seems the increased use and bad behavior of some users has contributed to the number and severity of fires.

There is a distressing article in the Seattle Times about outdoor recreation becoming “wreckcreation,” as people leave campfires untended and even bring fireworks into the seasonally dry woods. Fricking crazy! I had nurtured what is apparently an illusion, that Northwesterner’s were better-than-average stewards of the land and forests where we are lucky to live. It’s sad and maddening to read what’s going on. Park rangers, the article reports, “are fit to be tied.”

The now raging wildfires in the Northwest and California come on the heels of the fires of urban unrest and protest all in the midst of a pandemic that isn’t done with us yet and an economy that isn’t exactly out of the woods either. It’s overwhelming. I am wondering if the biblical texts we ought to be pondering are the Exodus accounts of the series of plagues visited on Egypt trying to get the empire to see the error of its ways and free the Hebrew slaves.

As then it is now, one thing after another, one disaster on top of another. The Trump slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which never called to me, sounds increasingly like a sick joke.

Speaking of which, the Democrats seem to be doubling down on the strategy of making this election a referendum on Donald Trump. While that may seem to make perfect sense, I have my doubts. You don’t want to turn whine-y Donnie into a perceived victim.

Moreover, haven’t most people made up their minds about Trump? A tactic of ‘hit ’em again harder” and coming out with more scandals or outrages daily will further harden and enrage the Trump loyalists, resulting — should Biden win as I certainly hope he will — with a completely alienated minority, mad as a hornet’s nest, at the center of our national life. But it’s probably too late to avoid that. Still, the Democrats need to talk about what they hope to do and not just about how awful Trump is. We know that.



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