On the first day of summer, I woke up to the acrid smell of hot tar. Even before my sleepy brain could name the source, my body tensed with anxiety: wildfire season was underway. Given the deepening drought and record-setting heat across most of the American west, this year’s fire season is widely predicted to be among the worst in recent memory – which is saying something, because last year’s was grotesque.
More than 10.5m acres burned across the region in 2020, the highest annual total since accurate records began nearly 40 years ago. At least 43 people died as a direct result of the flames, and researchers estimate that thousands more died from the effects of sustained smoke inhalation. Entire neighborhoods were flattened, and evacuations lasted weeks, accelerating the spread of the coronavirus. In rural Washington state, where I live, my neighbors and I were trapped inside for days by smoke so thick we could barely see across the street.
When I moved west for college, 30 years ago, wildfires happened every summer, but each fire was a separate event. Small or large, close or distant, each was distinct, and the sight or smell of wildfire smoke was unusual enough to be remarked upon. For me, at least, safety precautions were an afterthought – if I could find my passport and car keys, I considered myself ready for the season.
But as climate change boosts average temperatures and thins the mountain snowpack, wildfires have grown larger and more numerous. The fire season has lengthened, and its consequences are compounded by decades of fire suppression and bad municipal planning. Big fires now merge into 100,000-acre-plus megafires, and while each fire still has its own name and statistics, most of us experience the season as one long burn. At its height, smoke is almost always coming from somewhere, often multiple somewheres; most of the time, at least one family I know is under evacuation orders.
Over the years, my preparations for fire season have gradually become more elaborate. During the years that I lived on a fire-prone hillside in arid western Colorado, my passport and extra keys were joined by a hard drive and a haphazard pile of documents; my neighbors and kept a cistern of water in the back of an old pickup truck for use as an ad hoc fire engine. When my family moved north a few years ago, we looked forward to living in a somewhat less flammable climate and somewhat more fire-safe location. But as the summer smoke worsens here, too, we’ve started to accumulate air filters and box fans. This year, dire forecasts in mind, I found myself eyeing pre-loaded “bug-out bags,” the ever-widening selection of pricey backpacks stuffed with first-aid supplies, protein bars, and sealed bags of drinking water. I comparison-shopped for solar-powered weather radios, poring over reviews. I ultimately resisted the retail therapy, but last weekend I purged closets and piled up necessities, readying for a possible quick departure. And, as temperatures in the Pacific north-west have soared to previously unimaginable heights and my 12-year-old and I took shelter at our air-conditioned local library, I’ve realized that wildfire isn’t the only climate disaster my family might face.
I’m not, in general, prone to worry. Nor am I particularly organized. But my wildfire precautions are no longer performative, no longer just a hasty charm against bad luck. At some point during the last three decades, they became more like preparations for a trip – one whose departure date is both uncertain and inevitable. One of these years, more likely than not, my family will be among those evacuated. Like so many before us, we’ll be packing our car, heading to safety, and waiting for news.
When officials talk about the need to adapt to climate change, they’re often referring to technology: taller seawalls, hardier crops, improved emergency-alert systems. But some adaptations are less visible and more personal. As the climate gets drier and hotter, the air gets worse, and the fire risk increases, all of us in the west are adjusting as we can, in small ways and large. Those of us lucky enough to make it through the last fire season face the next with a little more trepidation, a few more precautions, and a growing realization that summer is no longer what it used to be.