Cascadia is Burning

The following essay by Deborah Burke, program associate for Sustainable Development at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, first appeared in The Seattle Times.

“We need the southerly winds to come in and send the smoke back to Canada,” my mom said confidently. “This is all from their fires.”

We were walking from the Puget Sound ferry dock to a downtown Seattle light-rail station in late August. I was headed to the airport to fly back to New York City and air that didn’t make my throat burn or my eyes water.

After returning to the East Coast, my throat hurt for several days. My nose ran. My eyes and ears itched. Occasionally, I felt disagreeable emotions like sadness, anxiety and ennui. It was days before I stopped attributing any small discomfort to smoke inhalation.

I’d stopped over to see my family in Seattle, after working the weekend in Vancouver, where my garrulous Canadian airport driver told me a conflicting story. “It’s those wildfires in Washington that are causing all this smoke,” he said, gesturing over the SUV’s sizzling dashboard. “That’s why you can’t see the mountain.”

I couldn’t see the skyline, much less a mountain.

What was happening to my beloved Pacific Northwest? Come the climate apocalypse, I’d planned to raise the flag of the scrappy new government of Cascadia: British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington forming an independent nation. The green people had been discussing it for decades. Cascadia would be our paradise of last resort. With the best beer and oysters, we’d ride it out together in the old growth forest until other humans got a handle on the new climate.

I work on climate change. And by that, I mean every day I send emails containing the word “climate” followed by the word “change.” There’s also a hefty sprinkling of “sustainability,” “resiliency” and “let’s pencil in 10:30 if that works for you.” I think about climate change every single day. I think about how to slow it, how to adapt to it and how to get other people to care about it.

But I don’t often have to breathe climate change.

I often say, pompously, that I work for the environment because I grew up in the most beautiful place on earth: the Oregon coast. When visiting my family, I look forward most to that first deep breath outside. I hike through old growth forests beside the sea, and I breathe. I kayak in the region’s rivers and lakes, and I breathe. “Tree breathing,” Mom calls it. I think it’s her missed translation of the Japanese idiom “forest bathing.”

But there was neither bathing nor breathing on this visit. My tiny niece and nephew live in Bremerton. They love to play with the slugs from my mom’s garden. But on this trip, we couldn’t play outside together. When I had no choice but to leave the house, the smoke had a texture. It had a taste.

While Seattle skies have since cleared, at least six fires rage on in Cascadia. As the planet warms, according to California’s most recent climate assessment, the frequency of wildfires will increase nearly 50 percent and burn 77 percent more land. That includes fields of hops. We can’t even drink beer to forget the outside.

It gets worse. The sea is on the rise. The Salish Sea — from the port of Vancouver to Puget Sound — is acidifying faster than the global average, according to a Washington Marine Resources Advisory Council report. There go the baby oysters. What’s left on Cascadia’s menu? Kelp. We will all eat kelp until our skin turns as green as our politics.

My backup plan seems to have gone up in smoke. Cascadia never stood a chance. A green concentration of people cannot inoculate themselves and their environment against the prevailing urge to do nothing. The earth is one system working together. We either row together or we choke.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.