Think About It: Forest fires and floods

A view of North America from space, courtesy of NASA, on Sept. 7.

I was wondering what astronauts see from their whirling home miles up in space when my mind-reader editor happened to send me a current photo of the USA taken from outer space. He was replying to my email about returning from a road trip that had to be through the largest smoke-filled room on the planet.

The photo is strangely beautiful, as if conceived in the mind of an artist of abstract thought. But only beautiful until you realize what’s happening to life below the smoke and twirling clouds.

The Pacific Northwest and southwest Canada is under a sheath of blue haze and a huge white formation is heading to Florida. Texas seems to be clearing and I don’t see what I know must be roofs of houses peeking through massive floodwaters.

Human-made disaster

The North Cascades Highway is one of the most scenic drives, especially traveling west, in the country. On a normal day, mountain peaks startle us with their majesty around every turn. Beautiful, deep, tree-lined canyons remind to stay in our lane and take curves carefully.

The drive was the culminating drive of our trip that took us into Canada via Abbotsford and Merritt for an extended stay in Penticton and Kelowna, B.C. The centerpiece of the area is Okanagan Lake, a large deep lake carved out by the slow movement of a humongous glazier eons ago.

It’s a wonderful recreational area for all ages and apparently draws a lot of moneyed people to live given the cost of housing. We liked the area.

Being from Sequim, it seems like years since I’ve seen so many babies in one place.

We knew we were driving into an area filled with smoke caused by various forest fires and were not disappointed. Smoke smog is much like fog in that we could see somewhat clearly in front of us but not in the distance. Overall, it was not preferable but tolerable.

The wind kicked in on one day and cleared out the area. As much as it was a relief, it was greeted with foreboding since wind feeds forest fires and brings more smoke into the area. So said the clerk at the gift shop.

The clerk was friendly but I thought she was worried or agitated by the fires. I asked her what she thought caused the forest fires.

“Some is lightening,” she answered, “but most is stupid people. They leave campfires and throw cigarette butts out the windows of their cars.”

We left as we arrived, brushed the ash off our car and drove through smoky air to our next destination. Before, we started back on the North Cascades Highway, we stopped in Winthrop.

The town of Winthrop turned old western buildings into a tourist feature, including installing boardwalks instead of sidewalks. Here again, I talked about the forest fires with a business owner.

She told me the cause of the Diamond Creek fire, the current source of smoke, was human, an abandoned campfire. She shook her head at the carelessness of people, including those that smoke outside her store and throw the butts near a gas tank.

Her eyes are full of worry as she tells me that Mazama, the next town over, is under a level one evacuation order, meaning: “Be ready to leave on a moment’s notice.”

We drove off and onto miles of the scenic highway shrouded in smoke disguising its majesty. At this moment, it doesn’t matter that most forest fires are lightning-caused, at least not to the people under threat of the Diamond Creek fire. One hundred and five thousand acres didn’t have to burn this time.

Mother Nature cures global warming

The news of the day every day during this road trip was Hurricane Harvey and floods that buried our fourth-largest city in America, Houston, with a population of more than five million residents. That fact alone without pictures is astonishing.

The pictures are incomprehensible, if only it were fake news. This very real devastation is unimaginable. Thousands upon thousands of people showed enormous strength in the face of a crisis of huge proportions.

We watch helplessly and cringe at the sight of old disabled people being lifted onto boats and fathers holding babies above the water. Then we cheer the people bringing their boats to rescue others.

Without a moment to reflect on the long rebuilding of a city, another larger, more powerful hurricane begins it trek across the Caribbean and travels mercilessly to Florida to inflict more inconceivable devastation.

What is going on?

USA Today, the traveler’s go-to newspaper, had a short article (Doyle Rice, Sept. 7, 2017) that provided the scientific explanation. I present it here as a public service to those like me who never quite heard it said like this before.

“Hurricanes are the atmosphere’s attempt to move heat from the warm equatorial regions toward the cold polar regions…it’s one of the ways the atmosphere keeps its heat budget balanced.” (meteorologist Phil Klotzback, Colorado State)

The article goes on to explain that Hurricanes convert heat energy to wind energy. Heat is moved to colder regions and some, I suppose the excess, is sent out into space.

From a nursing standpoint, it sounds to me like the earth has a fever and is naturally trying to regain homeostasis. Our bodies have a similar (if not windy) mechanism to remove heat from our bodies when we have a fever or are overheated.

If our bodies aren’t successful in cooling us, we either have a stroke or die without intervention of some sort.

I could carry this analogy into a discussion of the climate debate — you know heat moving to the polar icecaps and causing melting — but I won’t, at least not in this column.

For the moment, I will stay with the awe and fear I feel as a witness to the power of Mother Nature and her survival priorities that function with a long-term view regardless of consequences to modern human life.

Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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