When we left Montana in early September, smoke from local and regional forest fires was thick, for the second summer in a row.
My tomatoes hung, unripe, on their bushes, a disappointing reminder of how little direct sun we had received this year. Dips in the lake were always accompanied by the throb of helicopters and light aircraft overhead.
The sorrow of losing the last bluebird days of summer to smog was nothing compared to the suffering of those who couldn’t go outside because of compromised lung function [there’s a few of them in Lincoln County because of a vermiculite mine that operated in Libby in the 70’s and 80’s].
When we returned to Australia a few weeks ago, we returned to smoke from bushfires. The Yankees Gap fire – a highly unusual winter fire which started last month and has burnt for over 30 days, flared up again on the day of our welcome-back picnic at Kianninny bay, driven by strong warm winds.
It’s unsurprising, given how dry it is, especially for this time of year [you can read my first impressions of arriving home to drought here]
When my brother drove us from Canberra to my parent’s place in rural NSW for the first time, the dry was evident, especially after living in the relatively wet and green forests of northwestern Montana.
As Laurie drove us closer to mum and dad’s house, along their dirt track driveway, and saw the bush full of tall, dead wattles draped in long strands of crackly bark, I said: “you know what this place needs?”.
My brother and I looked at each other and at the tinderbox out the car windows and said in unison “a good fire.”
Despite summer after summer of preparation for the inevitable, for over 30 years the bush around my parent’s place has never burnt. Perhaps this will be the year.
In many ways, in Montana and in the Bega Valley, it’s the same story. A noticeable increase in the frequency of wildfires year by year. An increase in how hot each fire burns, and in how long it’s out of control for – and in how many structures are lost.
But the narrative I hear about wildfire is vastly different in each country, in each place. Here on the far south coast of NSW, a dominant narrative is about human-induced climate change – words that are never spoken in rural Montana.
Instead, the narrative in conservative Montana is that because environmentalists [often presumed to live elsewhere/in California] have held up logging operations with litigation, causing economic decline, the loss of a beloved timber industry and now ever-worsening wildfires.
A Facebook post that circulated a month ago showed the rage felt by some rural Montanans towards this “other”: “…. all you environmentalists that wanted to save our forests up here, I’m inviting you to live in what we have to now, you think air pollution is bad right now where you are? Let me tell you, when you can smell smoke from your basement, and you have ash raining down on you on a daily basis, then we can talk. I invite you to our state of Montana, so you can see what your responsible for. You might think lightning is responsible, but in all reality it’s your ignorant thought processes that hold up timber sales and logging in litigation that leads to disasters like this.”
Ironically, the environmentalists living in California and trying to stop logging in the north-west are living in a state that has had a hell of a fire season for the last few years, so it’s safe to say that smoke gets in their eyes too.
In the last few days, firefighters have finally contained the Mendocino fire, the largest and longest burning fire in California’s history. The blaze has killed a firefighter, destroyed 280 structures and covered an area about the same the size as California’s beloved sprawling city, Los Angles.
While everyone looks for someone to blame for the increase out-of-control wildfires, one thing is clear: the fires affect everyone, rich and poor. While money, to some extent, can provide an escape, our recent global trip showed a sameness about this year’s extreme heat and dry that is unavoidable.
A quick peek in the Guardian this morning confirmed the global nature of this year’s heat – Africa recorded it’s hottest ever temperature [of 51. 3C! that’s 123 F] at a weather station in the Sahara desert, and Sweden, a country which usually experiences an average of three wildfires in a summer, has had over 50 this year.
While global warming is certainly implicated, other weather factors, such as a weak jet stream [a core wind pattern that moves weather around the globe] and changes to sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic [known as the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation] are at play as well.
[Thanks to Simon at simonsweather.org who first explained these concepts to me].
The Facebook post which circulated this summer in Montana ends cheerfully and with an admirable maturity level: “We as Montanan’s, and I as well, think I can say this for the entire state to personally hold you responsible for what our living conditions are. And you wonder why we don’t like you!”
On the subject of heat and fire, it’s clear that my Montana community is not alone in searching for someone or something to blame.
But we must think globally on this one – humans don’t like extreme heat and dry and we don’t like how accustomed to the milky blue haze we are becoming.
Smoke is in our lives and it makes us all anxious, searching for an escape route, or an escape goat, or a scapegoat. Like the animals we are.
Smoky goodbye party at beautiful Milnor Lake, Troy, Montana. Late August 2018.