Nature’s firecracker shatters a Sunday afternoon. More detonations follow. Wheels of thunder rumble down the mountainsides and across the valley floor.
Crrrrackkkkkkk! The gods of physics are flexing their muscles. “We are releasing more energy in a few microseconds than your filthy fossil fired power plants can produce in a year. Match this, puny narcissists. Crrrrackkkkkkk!”
Suddenly torrents of precious fresh water flood streets and slake the thirst of the parched forest above. A few cautious automobiles throw up rooster tails as they venture through the storm.
Then it’s over. The dense curtain of clouds is drawn, revealing a blue crystal sky.
A few days later Ashland awakens in a thick smoky miasma. Some of those lightning strikes now have official fire names: Umpqua, Garner, Hendricks, Cemetery. Northerly winds are piping thick smoke from Josephine and Douglas Counties into the Rogue Bowl. Shakespeare Festival leaders are pondering the fate of players who are scheduled to strut and fret their hour upon the Elizabethan stage. Shopkeepers and purveyors of fine comestibles are wondering if their summer bounty will lay unloved on the shelves.
Thunderstorms and lightning strikes have been part of Oregon’s seasonal fabric since long before there was an Oregon. After the glaciers most recently retreated from North America about 10 millennia back and conifers repopulated high elevation terrain from the Siskiyous to the Arctic Circle, fire has been part of our seasonal cycle. You can read this story in the thick bark of species like the ponderosa pine, which have evolved to depend on periodic fires to sustain healthy, diverse forests.
But times have changed. For the past three centuries, our species has been frantically burning fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and methane gas, driving up the fraction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The biosphere has been getting warmer, fire seasons have been getting longer and wildfires have been getting more intense. This process has been accelerating since the steam engine set it in motion and now our climate is changing so fast that we can see effects increasing from year to year. By effects, I mean the smoke you are breathing today.
If you are listening to real scientists, you know that cool summers and full reservoirs are not part of the new normal. We will see fluctuations but the trend is clear: climate-related catastrophes will become more frequent and more destructive. We must adapt. There is no option B.
But we must do our best, as a conscious species, to mitigate the damage we have done. We must face an unprecedented global challenge and, at the moment we are failing this test miserably.
But we can act locally. For example, our nearby Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument includes vast tracts of sterile, same-age, same-species pine plantation left behind by industrial logging. What we have here are perfect laboratories for learning how to rewild and restore damaged forests. Interested? Let’s keep talking.