As I sit writing this we are in our 6th to 7th week straight of wildfire smoke that has poured into the valleys and forest of Western Washington. For the last 7-8 years, we've had wildfire smoke almost every summer or late summer. But, what is different about this time is that the wildfire smoke is coming from very, very local fires. In fact, there is a fire about 20 mile east of me as I write this.
And, it is October.
Two days ago, the temperature reached 90 degrees on October 16th. This broke the previous high temperature by ten degrees, and just to really add some perspective there are plenty of summers where we don't reach 90 degrees during the entire summer.
You see, I live on the wet, moist, lush Western side of the Cascade mountains, and in previous years when we've had smoke it's come from Central or Eastern Washington, Oregon, B.C., and even California. It's normal for the dry, arid forest of the Mountain West to have wildfires, it is not normal to have 90 degree days in October with wildfire smoke from wildfires in Western Washington.
Is it impossible? No, of course not. There is evidence of forest fires during historical and pre-historical times. However, there are areas around 200 miles north of where I live that scientist believe have never burned. That's right, the trees and forests there are so wet that they've never had a forest fire.
What does all of this have to do with Western Red Cedar?
Well, to put it succinctly, a lot.
Western Washington forests have now been logged, harvested, and altered in the form of "timber management" severely changing their natural make-up and biodiversity. A traditional mature forest has a diversity of specie of all ages, lots and lots of undergrowth and moss, and a lot of shade. Now, most of the forest land in Western Washington actually is not really a forest, but monocrop Dougals Fir trees that are young, the same age, and there's very little shade and very little undergrowth.
Cedars and hemlocks have been actively eliminated and now our mono-culture "forests" are increasingly vulnerable to fire as the young trees bake in the hot and dry summers. The remaining patches of mature forests are also subject to the damage of wildfire smoke, prolonged drought, and extreme dryness.
And Cedars are vulnerable to smoke...at least that's what several of my professional naturalist and tracker friends and I see. For many people it may take a long-term scientific study to prove what I'm about to say (and honestly I don't believe we have a long-term amount of time to figure this out). What we have seen repeatedly is that Cedars have done okay (not great, but okay) in the face of intense heat and dryness.
But as soon as it gets smokie, they tend to brown up very quickly and even die off rapidly.
It's almost as if they are being choked or suffocated. I don't know enough about Western Red Cedar at the cellular level to say whether or not that's possibly, but I'm very concerned that if we aren't careful Western Red Cedars will become rare, relic trees.
What can we do about this? I'll have more to say about this in the future, but a rather radical and possibly unpopular opinion I'd like to put out is:
In the face of rapid, dramatic and dangerous climate change it may be time to reverse our policy of letting wildfires burn at this time...especially if they are occurring in diverse, older mature forests.
At this point, do we really need to be letting trees burn, releasing more carbon into the air, and removing trees that are literally sucking carbon out of the air when they are left alone? Perhaps, it's time to let go of our human-centric policies of only suppressing fires when they threaten human structures...