A juxtaposition, cruel and humbling. The March 22 Oso mudslide, the greatest loss of life from a landslide in U.S. history. Across the Cascades, the Carlton Complex fire, Washington’s largest wildfire in recorded history.
Thirteen years ago, then-Gov. Gary Locke spoke at a memorial service for four fire fighters killed battling the explosive Thirty-Mile Fire. “Our state’s incredible natural beauty nourishes our souls. But sometimes, with unexpected swiftness, it breaks our hearts,” he said.
The Carlton and smaller Chiwaukum Complex fires have broken hearts, incinerated 300 homes, but not caused a direct loss of human life, itself a blessing. But 2,700 more homes and structures are threatened. There are 4,586 firefighters assigned, along with 28 aircraft. As of Friday, the price tag registered at more than $42 million. With Carlton only 55 percent contained, that figure will rise.
Nearly 300,000 acres consumed, an expanse so vast that news outlets produced superimposed-on-Seattle maps for Westsiders to absorb the scale. But can we absorb the sense of loss?
Oso survivors understand the unexpected swiftness of nature’s terrible beauty. On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee said he spoke to a volunteer wearing an “Oso Strong” T-shirt assisting at one of the shelters. The volunteer and others were delivering donated items from the Oso recovery, passing on what had been passed to them.
In his poem on the aftermath of the 2001 Star Fire, “Ankle-deep in Ashes,” Gary Snyder, a North Cascades fire lookout 60 years ago, wrote, “Drove here through miles of standing dead trees/gazed across the mountain valley/the sweep of black snags with no needles/stands of snags with burnt needles dangling/patches of green trees that still look live.” The cycle of life, of birth, death and rebirth.
Humility requires acceptance. That doesn’t mean complacency. On Friday, Inslee alluded to the infrastructure required to deal with climate-related events. Earlier this month, Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley pushed for $615 million for wildfire suppression as part of an emergency-spending request. They also elbowed their Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would end the practice of “fire borrowing” and treat the largest Western fires as natural disasters underwritten by the same disaster account used for hurricanes and other natural disasters.
“We need to break this vicious cycle of robbing fire prevention funds to fight fires that are already burning,” Merkley said. “We can and must combat wildfires in a smarter way.”
Agreed. Let something more enduring than ashes emerge from this.