The air “was perfectly thick with smoke,” wrote George McClellan as he explored the Cascade Mountains in 1853. Forest fires had reduced visibility so much that the future Civil War general quipped that he felt like he was back in a cigar-infested barracks room at West Point.
He was in fact close to Snoqualmie Pass, which today connects eastern and western Washington state via Interstate 90. That’s the route I take when I drive to Seattle from my farm in the Walla Walla Valley.
I thought of McClellan’s comment earlier this month, as smoke from forest fires in the Pacific Northwest made it impossible to see beyond a quarter of a mile. Our employees were picking up leafcutter bee boards out of the harvested alfalfa seed fields when the smoke hit. It was unbearable. They could barely breathe, and their COVID-19 masks didn’t help. Work had become impossible. I gave them the afternoon off.
The wildfires of 2020 have burned more than six million acres of land in California, Oregon, and Washington, killing dozens and igniting a debate over what went wrong.
I’ve never seen such a massive conflagration. Yet it’s hardly the first time I’ve had to deal with this kind of threat. As the McClellan anecdote shows, forest fires are a fact of life in the western United States. They erupted out here long before anyone started talking about climate change or discussed forest management.
For farmers like me, this year’s fires present another opportunity to demonstrate the resilience that food production demands. Every day, we battle weeds, pests, and disease. Weather is unpredictable. We’re always vulnerable to turmoil in commodity markets. These are normal hazards and we have the means to fight them, from crop-protection tools to insurance policies.
Yet every season brings its unique challenges—and sometimes we have to confront freak events that none of us could have predicted.
In agriculture, you never know what challenge is going to hit you.
This June, a cold spell prevented bees from pollinating our alfalfa. They didn’t want to fly. Last year, rainfall messed up our harvest, which depends on dry weather.
It’s always something, and sometimes it’s fire: A couple of years ago, smoke drifted down from British Columbia. It wasn’t as dense and nasty as this year, but we definitely noticed it. Before that, a blaze erupted at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a decommissioned site near my farm. As ashes floated through the sky, they drifted onto my farm as we were harvesting alfalfa seed.
I was worried that my fields would light on fire.
The panic lasted only a few hours and we avoided disaster, but that was the single scariest fire-and-farming moment I’ve had to endure. The flames and smoke of 2020 were never so harrowing but they’ve disrupted our activities for a longer period.
Thankfully, the fires this year have merely slowed us down. In the end, I don’t think they’ll have had a big effect on our bottom line.
Other farmers in my area will suffer, however. A friend of mine operates a vineyard and winery. He expects that the haze will delay his harvest, as his grapes take longer to mature. This means they’ll become more susceptible to frost, which can wreck a crop. An additional problem is flavor: Grapes that ripen in smog can taste like smoke. That can be good for barbequed meat but not for wine. Previous fires have caused this problem in the past and there’s no telling how the grapes will turn out until they’re ready for picking.
No solution will fix the threat of fires entirely. We inhabit in a region that’s prone to them. This was true when only the Native Americans lived out here and it remains true now.
Yet we can do better. One immediate improvement involves forest management. If public agencies do a better job of clearing out dead trees and building firebreaks, they’ll probably prevent ordinary forest fires from becoming devastating infernos. Unlike proposals to address climate change, which is a complicated and controversial problem, better forest policies can improve our quality of life almost immediately.
For farmers and everyone in the American West, that would help us all breathe a little easier.
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