Last week, Portland, Oregon, stayed inside. Ash blanketed the city. The Columbia River Gorge billowed smoke that cloaked the state with air that was barely fit to breathe.
The Eagle Creek Fire is just one of a dozen wildfires burning in Oregon, but people here are heartbroken over the devastation of this iconic spot. When observers said the fire had been started by a teenage boy from Vancouver, Washington, who lobbed a smoke bomb from a heavily forested cliff, it got much worse. The teenager has been identified by police but not yet arrested or charged with any crime—and in the interim, livid Oregon residents have suggested sterilizing, whipping, and even lynching him. (Police have not released his identity, including his ethnic identity, and have said they may not due to the threats he has received.) If an arrest is made and charges are brought, the possible punishment could include jail time (up to 7½ years) and thousands of dollars in fines (depending on the amount of damage).
The fire gobbled up miles of delicate habitat in the gorge—a place known for its incredible beauty, including many plant species that grow nowhere else. Glaciers shaped dramatic cliffs and left behind Ice Age seed banks of endemic plant species like the Columbia kittentail, smooth-leaf douglasia, and poet’s shooting star. The fire has also entered the Bull Run Watershed, the source of water for 1 in 5 Oregonians and threatened the Bonneville Dam and grid, the source of power for hundreds of thousands of homes.
It’s easy to pile on to some young stranger whose bad choice may have caused irrevocable damage to delicate ecosystems. Indeed, it’s much easier to focus on this than it is to summon overwhelming societal rage for the real culprit: climate change.
The summer of 2017 was one of the hottest on record in the Pacific Northwest, according to National Weather Service data. The days were scorching, and the nights didn’t cool off.
Not even the La Niña rain dump that finally ended California’s long drought could help. Punishing heat waves sucked all that moisture back into the atmosphere so fires could take over again.
As is often the case, it’s tricky to draw a direct line of causation between a single event like this fire and climate change. Someone lit the fuse that started this fire. But it was thanks to climate change that the conditions were ripe for a bigger, more destructive blaze. Drier, hotter summers mean once a fire starts, it’s harder to stop. One estimate suggested that over the past 33 years, climate change has doubled the area burned by Western forest fires.
For that, we are all responsible. Despite decades of dire warnings from climate scientists, we just keep charging straight into the abyss. We have ignored the warnings for so long that it now seems normal to respond to mounting evidence with irony, or a shrug, or a stiff drink.
How do we deal with the despair that comes from knowing we are on a terrible path and feeling helpless to create the enormous changes necessary to address that? In Portland, at least, this mess of dark emotions found an easy target: a kid whose attempt at fun seems to have burned down a national treasure, forced hundreds to evacuate their homes, and made a whole region breathe hazardous air. He’s a compelling villain because he lets us move our blame elsewhere, but in reality his selfish calculus is simply a parallel for our own. He caused a catastrophe for a moment of fun. We’re trading a habitable climate for a few generations of easy living.
One hiker on the popular Eagle Creek hiking trail the day the fire started told Willamette Week that the kid who started the fire was with a group of friends who giggled as he tossed the spark that started a regional nightmare. She said the kid’s friends filmed the whole thing on their phones.
Oregon State Police are investigating. They say charges, which are up to the district attorneys, will depend on intent. Was he intentionally trying to burn down an iconic forest, or was it inadvertent? You could ask the same question of all of us.