Seattle’s smoky summers are becoming the new normal

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Seattle is supposed to be the emerald city. Always green and sparkling. However, for the last several weeks, it is grey and dusty. One can barely see the Needle, let alone Mt. Rainier, from Seattle downtown. There is now darkness at noon, unusual for a city where the summer sun would set later in the evening.

On some days, Seattle’s air quality has been worse than in Delhi or Beijing. The summer air quality in the state of Washington is now among the worst in the lower 48 states.

{mosads}Last summer, Seattle was shrouded in a smoke cover for several weeks. It was supposed to be a freak incident. Again this summer, Seattle has been shrouded in smoke from forest fires. Smoky summers are becoming the new normal. While last summer the smoke emanated predominantly from the Cascades and Eastern Washington, this time the culprit is British Columbia — though smoke from wildfires in Oregon and California is also coming in.


Beyond the aesthetics, smoky summers pose serious health problems. Seattleites are advised to check the air quality before embarking on outdoor recreational activities such a hiking, sailing, or biking. Those with pulmonary or heart problems are advised to stay indoors.

Smoky summers create issues for the indoors as well. Seattleites would get through the summer heat by keeping their windows open. Air conditioners are rare. No more. Windows are now firmly shut. Families actively debate about the air conditioning option. This will eventually increase the demand for electricity and contribute to global warming. 

Where to place the blame? Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Secretary Ryan Zinke are in a slanging match. Inslee blames climate change for the forest fires while Zinke lays the blame on environmental groups that impede active forest management. 

From the perspective of a Seattle resident, this debate is frustrating. Many Seattleites, of course, agree about the need to act on climate change. Although Washington voters rejected I-732 carbon tax initiative in 2016, they have the opportunity to enact a carbon tax via the Carbon Fee initiative 1631 in November 2018. But even if 1631 were to pass, Seattle residents cannot expect a respite from smoky summers. Along with long-term solutions to climate change, they want an immediate response to forest fires.

The reality is that climate change is already unfolding itself in a myriad of ways. Even if President Trump were to miraculously change his mind and the United States should re-join the Paris Agreement and return to its emission reduction commitment smoky summers will persist. We need to adapt to climate change even as we seek to mitigate it.

Because most forests in the Western United States are owned by the federal government, the Interior Department needs to play a crucial role in addressing forest fires. Furthermore, forest fires create transboundary air pollution, across state boundaries, and across international borders. Smoke drifts do not respect political boundaries.

States have been working on transboundary pollution issue. For example, the Northeastern states sued the EPA in 2017 for failing to address ozone pollution transported from the Midwest. Yet, the EPA responded by proposing to close down the “good neighbor” policy that sets expectations for upwind states to reduce their emissions. 

The challenge for Western states is to create new governance mechanisms even in the face of opposition from the federal government. For example, while much of the fire suppression costs are borne by states in which forests are located, neighboring states receiving smoke drifts could help with these costs. Perhaps, a regional approach to managing forest fires is needed. 

Bipartisan initiatives at the federal level are also needed. More than 50 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget is now devoted to fire suppression, up from 15 percent in previous years. In 2017, Western senators introduced Wildfire Disaster Funding Act that required the federal government to treat wildfires as natural disasters. This will lead fires suppression activity to be funded from disaster accounts, instead of relying on the forest service’s meager budget.

Nonstate fire suppression initiatives could also play a role in this regard. This requires environmental groups and timber companies to collaboratively find new ways to manage forests, without getting drawn into the debates over climate change or the logging wars of the 1970s. All stakeholders have a shared interest in preventing the massive forest fires which lay waste not only to thousands of acres of valuable timber, but also destroy wildlife and create very serious public health and pollution problems. By some accounts, a few weeks of forest fires spews greenhouse gas equivalent to what cars do annually. Smoky summers cause respiratory problems especially for those who cannot afford counter measures. Fighting forest fires requires using thousands of tons of fires retardants that pollute water streams.

Environmental groups should be willing to explore policies like aggressive reduction in fuel load, cutting of dead trees, etc. There may be cases where active forest management negatively impacts endangered species. There could be instances where some timber companies might misuse these active forest management policies. But given the large-scale destructive impacts of forest fires, this is a policy risk worth taking. 

Timber companies will need to demonstrate that they are trustworthy. One way to do so is to develop a code of best practices to assure environmental groups that they will not exploit this opportunity for large-scale clearcutting of forests. Perhaps existing recommendations and standards regarding fire risk management of Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forest Initiative could build a basis for such conversations.

Nives Dolsak is a professor and the associate director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at University of Washington, Seattle 

Aseem Prakash is the director of the Center for Environmental Politics, and the Walker Family professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, Seattle.

Tags Aseem Prakash Climate change Donald Trump Forest Nives Dolšak Pollution Ryan Zinke wildfires
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