Unless you’ve actually been in an area where you can look out your window and see the view with your own eyes, by now you’ve caught images of an orange sky coming from West Coast. For the past week, hundreds of miles of California, Oregon, Washington, and neighboring states have been covered in smokey air as forest fires rage, driving thousands of people from their homes. More than a dozen people have died in these historically catastrophic fires.
As climate change has increasingly worsened fire season, it’s changed how Paige Parry, associate professor of Biology at George Fox University, makes sense of these disasters.
“We know that humans are what’s contributing to the fires,” said Parry. “So in my head, that makes my response and the questions that I ask very different than maybe a disaster that's truly natural and not influenced at all by human action.”
Parry, a quantitative forest ecologist, has spent most of her life and research in the West.
“Within this context of feeling like we have so little control over the situations that are unfolding here on the West Coast and feeling like we're just victims of these fires ravaging, there's a part of me that also recognizes that our collective actions and choices have in some ways likely contributed to the situation that we've found ourselves in, which I think leaves us to wrestle with it in a very different way,” she said.
Parry joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss why these fires have grown increasingly worse, what types of consequences the fires have even after they’ve been extinguished, and how a Christian response to fires may look different in the wake of climate change.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #230
Can you tell us a little bit about what the current situation on the West coast is?
Paige Parry: There's a variety of large and small fires peppered around the state, and the concern with a lot of these is that they've spread into a lot of relatively densely-populated areas.
They were spread primarily by really high winds last week that carried some warm, dry air from the east over to the west side of the Cascade Mountains, and the region west of the Cascades is particularly dry right now.
Some of our biggest fires are located in western Oregon and central Washington. And probably the most publicized of those has been the fire complex that has resulted from the merging of three different fires that are fairly close to where I'm at here in Newburgh.
Those three fires are the Lionshead Fire, which originated several weeks ago on the east slope of the Cascades; the Beachie Creek Fire, which is just to the west of Salem, Oregon; and the Riverside Fire, which is a little bit north of that. So those were three separate fires and recently they've merged into one fire and collectively have burned just under 500,000 acres. So it's a pretty massive fire at this point.
A lot of that has been within the Willamette National Forest, but it's spread over to communities on the west slope of the Cascades, and the current numbers suggest that around a million acres have burned in Oregon alone. So that doesn't account for the many acres that have burned in Washington and California as well.
In Oregon, over 40,000 people are currently evacuated from their homes, and there are many additional people on evacuation status that are kind of ready to go if they need to leave.
Most of our big fires, as of today, are only being reported at zero to 5% contained. So it looks like we're kind of in this for a while. There's a lot of work to be done. The estimates right now are that the fires are only going to be extinguished when we reached the rainy season, which we're not quite sure when that's going to come.
But this week has given us a little bit of optimism, it's been a lot cooler than last week. There's moisture, more humid air, and so there's optimism that that will allow the firefighters to make some more progress on containment. On some of the small fires, they've made some pretty remarkable progress on containment within the last couple of days.
As far as the air quality, that's the other thing that has been talked about pretty widely, and our air quality is extremely poor right now and it's recommended that everybody stay inside. So I think everybody's feeling a little antsy and a little cooped up and ready to go outside. We haven't seen the sunrise for about a week now. Those orange skies, at least in Western Oregon, have largely subsided and have just been replaced by a gray hazy smoke that’s settled, there's a lot of ash on a lot of surfaces, and a lot of not so pleasant things in the air to breathe in.
But the fire reports are getting more optimistic. Evacuation orders and warnings are in place, but we're hopeful that things will improve throughout the week.
Has fire season always been part of living on the West Coast or have things gotten worse over the years? And as far as its impact on people, is it that people are moving into regions where there are fires or are the fires moving to places where there are more people?
Paige Parry: The broader set of data that forest ecologists and fire ecologists have collected certainly shows that things have gotten worse over time. And they've been increasing for some time now. But not only are we experiencing more frequent fires than would have been historically typical for this region, but the fires are burning much larger than would have been typical. So they're also making more major news headlines and having a larger impact on people who live in these regions than our more historic fires would have.
Because the fires are burning much larger than historic fires would have in this region, they inevitably just burned further and come into contact with more largely populated areas. The west slope of the Cascades would have been historically characterized by much longer fire return intervals, so now that we're seeing more frequent fires, that also means that those fires are more likely to occur in places where people are living.
But the other side of that is that more people are living in what we call the wildland-urban interface. And that's these, maybe not densely populated regions, but these areas kind of on the edge of cities and towns that have sprawled closer to national forest land or into more forested regions.
And so there's a denser population in the wildland-urban interface across the western US than there was 50-60 years ago. So when fires do burn in those regions, those fires are coming into contact with people's private property and people's homes.
We've been experiencing, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, a drought that's extended for some years now, but this year has been a very, very dry summer. The western slope of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington is characterized by a Mediterranean climate. Mediterranean climates come with dry summers, so our region is adapted to pretty dry months in July and August, but the dry period is getting drier than it used to be, and it's also getting longer. And so that allows vegetation to dry out much more than it would if the drought period was relatively short. And that sets the conditions up pretty well for big fires.
As the fires become more common, have the responses to how they are managed or what recovery looks like changed over time?
Paige Parry: Yeah, it absolutely has. And it's changing in some significant way. Perhaps to understand that it's important to have a little bit of context for what high fire has historically looked like in this area.
On this side of the Cascades, our forests are adapted to a high-severity fire regime, which means that fires occur relatively infrequently but when they do occur, they're very severe fires; they burn up into the canopy. And so forests here can be resilient to these fires under the right conditions.
Disturbances like fire initiate what we call an ecology succession. And succession entails the success of change in species, composition, and ecosystem structure that occurs after a disturbance, whether that disturbance is a windstorm or a fire or something else.
Species like Douglas fir, which is the dominant tree species in our forests here, they need an open canopy with ample light to regenerate. So in one sense, fire can be really positive for these forests because it's what they're adapted to over these long intervals and they need the canopy to open for some of our key and most dominant species to regenerate. And over time, they'll create a shaded, climatically-buffered environment below their canopies that allow other more shade-tolerant, and less drought-tolerant species to move in.
So the fundamental idea here is that ecosystems are meant to change over time. We know that ecosystems are not stable, and we know that they're resilient to some degree of change. But the fires that we're currently seeing do present some major challenges for ecosystem recovery because they're occurring within a backdrop of conditions to which our forests are not well adapted.
So one of the biggest challenges is that these large fires result in large distances between the burned areas that are at the core of the fire and seed sources. For new seedlings to establish, seeds need to disperse. But if the unburned stands are very far from the center of the fire, it can be very difficult for a seed to disperse that far. And as we're experiencing more frequent fires, that also means that there's a greater risk that a fire will come along and burn one of those stands down before they have the opportunity to disperse. So getting seeds to burned areas is becoming more challenging within the context of these really large fires.
But the other challenge is that in some cases, seedlings are struggling to establish following fires because our droughts are getting hotter and drier and longer. So for tree seedlings establishing west of the Cascades, their greatest challenge is usually surviving their first summer. And drought conditions are really, really stressful for them. So the hotter and drier it gets, the harder it is for seeding establishing in burned regions to actually survive their first summer and regenerate the forest.
And we've already seen this challenge played out following some fires, most notably in the Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon and northern California. There have been a couple of studies that have come out of there showing that in these large burns, and with pretty severe drought conditions, seedlings just aren't able to survive.
So what this suggests is that there's the potential for a fundamental shift in some of these areas where forests may not be able to persist in the long-term if conditions continue to be characterized by increasing severity and length of drought conditions along with these really large, severe fires.
You have spent so many years of your life in the forest and thinking about forests. Can you share how your faith and the forest have informed each other?
Paige Parry: I was motivated to go into ecology primarily because of my faith. I've often found that I'm able to connect with God best in natural places. And I also recognize that a lot of our natural places are changing and they're changing in some significant ways because of the ways that humans interact with them. So I was pretty motivated to want to find some solutions to those sorts of problems and to understand those problems better.
This led me to a career in research and teaching, where I get the ability to research questions that contribute to answering some of the questions related to the problems that we're facing ecologically, but then also to share some of those answers with my students and to try and inspire them to care about these things as well.
So I think it's a love of nature that kind of has motivated what I do that's very much related to my faith and how I connect with God.
But I also think that spending time in the forest has allowed me to understand God and learn quite a bit about him that I haven't learned from any other contexts. So I've found some pretty amazing lessons in the way that God's constructed the forest and things that reflect a lot of his nature—the cooperation of ecosystems, how all components work together, and how there's this community with these really, really diverse parts that support one another and contribute to the functioning of the community. Those are just a few examples of some of the many lessons that parallel what I've learned in my faith journey and have been informed by my time in the forest.
Ecology is all about the interactions between organisms and their environment. And so to study ecology is really to understand really intricate relationships, to recognize that every living thing is highly dependent on many other living things and that every single change to a system has an impact on every component of that system.
So it's informed my faith in that sense. It's forced me to think really carefully about how my choices impact my brothers and sisters around the world and how I can make choices that share the love of God through the actions that I take.
Would you say that the forest fires have challenged your faith?
Paige Parry: I was thinking about this question earlier and what came to mind was a conversation that I had with one of my students a couple of years ago in my ecology class.
One of my students came to my office for a chat after we'd wrapped up some material about disturbances, and we'd been talking a lot about fire and she was having a lot of trouble seeing God in the way that ecosystems function and that really threw me off guard because to me it's always been such a significant place where I deepened my faith.
But from what she'd taken away from the conversations in the course, she recognized that death and destruction are a natural part of ecosystems and that death and destruction under particular conditions are necessary for ecosystems to be healthy. And to her, that seemed inconsistent with what she knew of God, that he would structure the world in a way that requires death and destruction for new things to be born.
I offered what I thought at the time was a compelling answer. And I spoke about how God's work since the fall has been to redeem creation. How his redemptive work is mirrored in the way that ecosystems function and how death ushers in new life just as in Christ we moved from death to life. I tried to motivate her and get her to care deeply about the ecology and what it can teach her about God and thought that it was all good.
But these fires, in particular, have kind of made me realize that there's just a much more complex story at play and that maybe there isn't such a pat answer. So in that sense, they've been slightly challenging to my faith, just as I watch people I know that have been so deeply affected by these fires.
We've had a lot of stories of tragedy this week in our community. We've known people who have been very deeply affected by these fires. We've read news articles about people who have died in these fires in really, really tragic ways. And I've just been left praying quite a lot for God's mercy and feeling relatively powerless to stop the tragedies and to help the people affected by them.
So while I know that the collective sins and choices of humanity contribute to the suffering that we experienced in the world, and I've heard all of the pat Sunday School answers for that sort of thing, I think when you're faced with the reality of these sorts of things, these situations that just cause people so much suffering, those answers just don't always seem good enough.
And you're just left asking the same question that it seems like Christians have been asking forever: Why doesn't God intervene when he sees people that he loves suffering in such significant ways?
So I think these situations have brought me back to that question in a new way. I can certainly offer all sorts of answers, but when you actually watch people who are suffering so much, it causes you to answer those questions again. And really, I feel like I'm just still grappling for the answer.
Do you feel wrestling with the effects of a forest fire might be different than wrestling with a tornado, hurricane, or other natural disasters? Do forest fires bring any special pressure or questions that make them different?
Paige Parry: You know, I think there are probably many thoughts in many diverse directions that contribute to my answer, but one thing that comes to mind is the fact that we know that humans are what’s contributing to the fires. So in my head, that makes my response and the questions that I ask very different than maybe a disaster that's truly natural and not influenced at all by human action.
And so within this context of feeling like we have so little control over the situations that are unfolding here on the West Coast and feeling like we're just victims of these fires ravaging, there's a part of me that also recognizes that our collective actions and choices have in some ways likely contributed to the situation that we've found ourselves in, which I think leaves us to wrestle with it in a very different way.
We talk a lot on this show about the ways the church can be the church and make a difference when it comes to living out their faith. How might you encourage the church to act in a way that is consistent with the teachings of Jesus—not only as these fires are raging right now, but after they're extinguished and before fire season starts again next year?
Paige Parry: I think that the most immediate thing that anybody can do is to pray. And I'd ask that everybody, please continue to pray for Oregon and Washington and California, and every other community that is experiencing these fires.
I, as well as probably many listeners, am entirely convinced that God hears the prayers of his people and that this is our most powerful response to tragedy. And I know I've been brought to my knees many times this week as I just see more and more news of people being injured, people's homes being consumed in these fires, and really feeling like prayer is the only reasonable response to it at this particular point in time.
For people who are not anywhere near here, I recently saw on social media that a friend’s church in Tennessee had organized a prayer service specifically to pray for the fires here in Oregon. And that was really encouraging to me, recognizing that the prayers of people all around the world are being raised on behalf of us in this situation right now.
So not only praying but being able to offer encouragement either through social media or anything else to people here who are displaced from their homes, who are worried about their homes being consumed in the fire, who are dealing with a whole lot on their plates right now as they deal with COVID as well as these fires. I think just offering encouragement really boosts people's spirits to know that this is something that matters to people around the country and people around the world, and it isn't just us that's left to wrestle with this.
On a broader scale, and perhaps a longer-term set of actions to consider, I would encourage people within the church to consider how they might contribute to the environmental conditions that have encouraged fires like these through personal actions and consumption choices.
And a lot of that comes down to, to anthropogenic climate change and the role that we play in moving climate towards conditions that favor longer and hotter and drier summer droughts and that facilitate the spread of these, these really large fires. So there's certainly a human element to that, and the first and most important thing that we all can do is perhaps to take personal responsibility and to recognize that.
But I think that alone requires everybody considering that perhaps climate change doesn't necessarily have to be a partisan or political issue. And I think so often, we look at all these issues through the lens of what we hear in society and the common narrative in society, and I'd encourage everybody to just take a step back from the societal perspective and look at these issues and challenges in a fresh way, primarily through the lens of our faith.
And I hope that, if enough people do that, we'll see that taking action on environmental challenges and taking action on climate change is a way that we can extend the love of God to our neighbors all around the world, by creating a better world with safer conditions for everybody to live in and doing our part to do that.
So of course there are many, many practical things that individual people can do to take climate action, to reduce their carbon footprint, and there are many great resources on those types of things, but I think a really important first step is admitting our personal responsibility, however larger it may be, and committing to doing what we can to try and mitigate climate change as much as possible.
A lot of the images we see are people fleeing some fairly nice homes up in the mountains. But what are some of the ways the poor may be, disproportionately affected by forest fires?
Paige Parry: Many people in western Oregon and Washington don't have air conditioning and our temperatures were projected to be very, very warm this week. Typically people with more money have air conditioning, people with less are less likely to have air conditioning here. That's been a major concern and it’s a tangible example of this sort of thing.
Because when you don't have air conditioning, what do you do to cool your house? You open your windows up at night, let all the fresh air come through, let the cool air come in, and then you close it up during the day. But right now we all need to keep her houses closed up all day. Fortunately, we've had the temperatures grow a little bit cooler, but that's just one example where dealing with these sorts of things is much harder for people with less access to resources.
When it comes to people who are evacuating homes and evacuating properties, there've been evacuation centers set up, but most people are preferring to go and stay with friends and family. If you happen to be in a poorer socioeconomic group, and your friends happen to be in a poor socioeconomic group, and your family, then it may be more challenging to find a comfortable place to stay, a place where there's a bed for you and room for you.
And we don't know how long these evacuations will last. It's been about a week already for many of them, so people are potentially being displaced for relatively long periods. And staying in a school gymnasium, crowded in with a lot of other people, particularly during COVID conditions is not the ideal scenario for most people.
So I think there are probably a variety of ways—even in just dealing with the effects of the fires, dealing with getting houses back in habitable condition, and properties back to the level that they were is going to be more challenging for people with fewer resources.
One other thing that I would mention is that in the Willamette Valley, we're primarily a crop growing region, and this is harvest season for a lot of our crops. And one story that's been coming out in our local news is that many of our farm workers—many of whom are migrant workers and are relatively poor—are working in these smoky conditions outside and it's not safe or healthy for them, but they don't have an option.
How do you react when you see people use apocalyptic of language when talking about the fires? And what do you think it kind of suggests about how humans understand and process natural disasters?
Paige Parry: I think I have two separate responses, one that's perhaps motivated from the science side of me and one that's perhaps motivated more by my faith.
For the science side of me, I feel like we get this reaction to fires in general, right? People see fires burning and think that fires are the problem. And so there's a part of me that wants to ensure that the public is educated on natural fire regimes and that for most ecosystems to stay healthy, fires are a natural component. But fires in those natural systems occur within the context of a particular set of conditions that makes that system resilient to those disturbances, and what we're experiencing now is less resilience because we've changed the context for those disturbances so much.
So recognizing that the fire itself isn’t always such a problem, and the goal shouldn't be to suppress every fire—which is something that we've attempted to do in this country for quite a while now—but more focusing on the condition within which those fires burn will allow us to have some healthy fire management.
But I suppose the other piece of that is that when I hear the apocalyptic language, particularly, maybe from other Christians, it seems to often be used in an attempt to absolve humans from any responsibility for the problems. And particularly I hear this a lot related to environmental problems and climate change.
I think it's perhaps a way for us to express the severity of the current situation while, at the same time, allowing ourselves to feel as though we don't need to do much to mitigate the causes of it. And I even hear this in my classes when we talk about climate change. There are comments like, “God is going to bring it into the world anyway, so why bother to do anything?” And so I worry that sometimes that apocalyptic language veils that sort of thinking, where if we can suggest that this is just an uncontrolled end to the world then we don't have to respond in any particular way.
I do want to be really careful in my critique right now because I will say that people throughout this region, as well as throughout the world, including members and leaders of regional churches, have been incredibly generous and hospitable and caring towards the many people affected by these fires and have responded in a way that I think does tangibly express God's love to their neighbors. But I do wish that Christians could also recognize that our interactions with the environment also give us an opportunity to love or not to love our neighbors and that the actions that we choose to take or not take concerning climate change do contribute or alleviate the degree of suffering in our world.
So I would be cautious in suggesting that apocalyptic language reflects the situation because some of this comes from human choices and human actions, and we do need to take responsibility for the pieces of this that we are responsible for.
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