Wildfire: the New Normal?

by David Wieland, Friends of the Inyo Trail Ambassador

Aftermath of the February 2018 Pleasant Fire in Bishop.

One of the great pleasures of backcountry trail work is disconnecting from the world for eight days at a time. News of new policies from Washington, family drama, and notices of late payment must all patiently wait for me to return to cell range. I distinctly remember leaving a project in the summer of 2015.

The crew spilled out of the cramped van like a ripped open box of noodles, a cascading mess of torn sweatshirts, dirty hands, and sweaty faces all competing to get in the buffet first. We proudly strolled past the gaping diners, piled our plates sky high with various fried foods, and slid into the vinyl bench seats like they were our beds for the night. Once I could see through a hole in the mountain of food in front of me, the drone of the television started to come into focus. The anchor was speaking over footage of orange and yellow flames licking the sky of a forest. The ticker at the bottom of the screen read, “Largest Wildfire in Washington State History.”

You never forget the moments when you aren’t sure if your family is alive. My pulse quickened as the news cut to show the fire spotting embers over a neighborhood. Fingers trembling, I stared at my phone for the eternity it took to turn on. Punching in numbers one by one, I waited an eternity again as my mom’s phone rang once, twice, three times, four times, and went to voicemail. Trying not to panic, my sweaty fingers punched in my dad’s phone number. One ring, two rings, three rings, four. He picked up.

My family was safe.

The July 2018 Ferguson Fire outside of Yosemite; photo by Blake Scott, courtesy of Wikimedia.

Higher temperatures, reduced snowpack, increased drought risk, and longer warm seasons are increasing wildfire activity in the Eastern Sierra, and the western United States as a whole. These more frequent and more severe wildfires threaten our communities and loved ones in very tangible ways this year–the February evacuation in Bishop as well as the constant shroud of smoke from Bridgeport to Lone Pine are potentially a new normal for us.

This future of fear and uncertainty is not the only option. A drastic reduction in greenhouse gases over the next few decades is not only necessary, but possible. Continuing to protect our public lands, opposing development of unnecessary resource extraction, and progressive fire management can steer us away from the most devastating potential impacts of wildland fire on our families’ futures.