Brian Mittge Commentary: What Should We Do About Wildfires and Smoke Season?


I wonder if “smoke season” will be our new normal.

For most of the past half dozen years or so, we’ve had days or weeks of choking smoke as summer ends. It usually hits in August, but this year we faced shocking levels of haze in mid-October. On Thursday, the air quality index measured a “very unhealthy” level of 282 in Chehalis. It was one of the worst air pollution levels in the entire world — far higher than even Beijing, which came in at 167.

We’re seeing our Northwest forests go up in flames and feeling our eyes and throats burn as we breathe in the microscopic ash that has drifted for hundreds of miles.

Maybe this is the way our summers would be naturally. Wildfires are part of nature (and were set by the native people long before Europeans arrived). There are records from the 1800s of smoke in the air during the Northwest dry season.

Most of us, though, grew up in the era of fire suppression. Wildfires were detected early and fought to the ground, so smaller fires to clean out the forest became rare. At the same time, forests were logged and replanted with thick stands of the same species of trees. In recent decades, much of that logging has been curtailed for environmental reasons.

And while all this was happening, our industrialized global society emitted huge amounts of carbon in the air, changing weather patterns and our climate in ways that have all sorts of unanticipated impacts.

At this point, wildfires are exploding each summer beyond what we can control.

Our forests are burning and choking our lungs. It’s heartbreaking. And I can’t help thinking that the causes, impacts and possible solutions are probably far beyond what most of us can understand. Certainly, they are more complex that any simple political talking points.

And yet, I fear that political discussions about wildfire (and smoke) response will fall along familiar partisan lines.

Folks on the left will be tempted to say climate change is the biggest problem and that to fight fires, we need to focus our energy on fighting climate change. They’ll also call for prescribed burns. Meanwhile, on the right, folks will want say we simply need more logging.

The fact is, both sides probably are right, at least to some extent. And both sides are also missing valuable insights on the other side if you dig a little deeper.

Climate change is real. Did it cause our spring to come late this year and our autumn to come even later, giving us wildfire smoke in October? Probably so, at least in part. Ditto for last year’s record-breaking heat wave. The heat is stressing our forests and causing trees to die. Invasive pests are loving the warmer climate as they kill vast swaths of trees. Understanding this reality needs to be part of our response.

And harvesting our forests is certainly part of the answer, but just clearcutting like the old days won’t fix what ails our forests. Locking off our forests to preserve them in a natural state isn’t the answer in a changing climate and devastating wildfires. Logging is part of our culture, economy and heritage. It can and should be part of the solution, but it’s not going to fix our wildfire problems on its own.

What I want is for both sides to really listen and respect the other. Each side’s perspective and expertise can help us find a solution that can let us breathe easier. Does a clearcut have the same ecological function as a wildfire clearing out underbrush? My gut tells me no, but let’s get scientists and loggers to talk and share notes. I believe that we can figure this out if all sides come to the table in good faith. 

The alternative is to get used to Smaugust and Choketember. It’s a dark future but I think there might be a way to avoid it. Let’s work with those who care but see the world differently. We can create a clearer future, together.


Big Daddy Wolverine

Speaking of our Northwest forests ... I don’t know a lot about wolverines, but their reputation for ferocity makes me think that Van, a rambling man of a wolverine whose photo ran prominently in Thursday’s Chronicle, would somehow be proud of the title that wildlife conservation experts gave him: “the resident male of Mount Rainier.”

That’s a great title. Beats “big man on campus” for sure.

I suspect that most wolverine dudes are pretty territorial, and when your territory is the entirety of the tallest mountain for a couple thousand miles in any direction, that’s some pretty big wolverine swagger.

Way to go, Van. You’re the man.


Brian Mittge can be reached at