What caused the Eagle Creek fire?

September 12, 2017

A blaze raging in Oregon near Portland begs the question: What's behind the increase in devastating wildfires? Samantha Clarke and Ben Riley report.

AS A fire raged through Oregon's Eagle Creek last week and workers struggled to save people stranded in the popular hiking destination, the media were busy placing blame on anyone they could--including a 15-year-old boy--rather than the conditions that laid the basis for the devastation.

On Saturday, September 2, the Eagle Creek fire was reported in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, about 45 miles from Portland, Oregon. By the next morning, the fire had grown to over 3,000 acres and began to move west through the gorge toward the 2.3 million-person Portland metropolitan area.

Over the next three days, temperatures soared into the mid-90s, and winds began to gust, fanning the flames of the once-tame blaze into a 31,000-acre force of nature, capable of threatening the massive population in its path.

The effects from the fire began to be felt by Portland residents on Monday, as smoke filled the air and ash began to rain from the sky. "It's so hard to breathe" became a common sentiment of frustration from people all over the city. Many compared the thick layer of ash coating everything in sight to the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, which spread ash all the way around the globe.

The forests of Oregon are ravaged by the Eagle Creek fire
The forests of Oregon are ravaged by the Eagle Creek fire

On Tuesday, as the air quality worsened--reaching peaks deemed "very unhealthy" by the afternoon--and the fire drew closer, the city posted evacuation notices for many residents in Portland's eastern suburbs, and set up emergency shelters for displaced residents.

The fire joins others sweeping across Oregon, as well as Montana, California and Idaho, in one of the hottest, driest summers on record. The five hottest summers in Oregon history have all been within the last 13 years, causing the easy and rapid spread of forest fires, whether from human or natural causes.

The annual budget for fire suppression hit $1 billion for the first time in 2000, and only 15 years later hit $2 billion in 2015. The fires have continued to grow bigger and more frequent, even as we spend more money to suppress them.

Yet when both liberal and conservative media outlets chimed in about the Eagle Creek fire, their narrative was focused on retribution and personal accountability. An especially grotesque account from CNN villainized teenagers who were accused of using fireworks that ignited the fire.

But blaming kids for a fire of this magnitude is a misdirection of what is otherwise rightful frustration and anger with unsafe conditions, poor air quality and the destruction of both public and private land.

To prevent devastation like this in the future, we need to address the real causes of this massive fire as well as the others: climate change, the logging industry and the root of both--capitalism.

IN 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service, with the primary objective of the suppression of fire on public lands. In 1935, national fire management policy changed to adopt the "10 a.m. policy": aiming to extinguish every reported fire by 10 a.m. the day after it was reported.

Forest Service officials argued that total suppression was needed in order to preserve standing timber--an argument completely disconnected from ecology and entirely based in preserving the potential for profit in the lumber industry.

In 1944, the Forest Service instituted a propaganda campaign intended to bring "fire suppression as a rule" to the U.S. public. This campaign featured the famous Smokey the Bear--over the next 50 years, Smokey became a household name with the popular catchphrase: "Only you can prevent forest fires."

The reason behind this campaign was simple: the U.S. had experienced a high demand for lumber during the Second World War, and the government decided the best way to ensure it would have the resources needed to preserve timber assets was to get the public on board.

However, the perspective that all fire was detrimental wasn't without opposition. As early as 1924, environmentalist Aldo Leopold argued that wildfires were not only beneficial to the health of our ecosystems, but in many cases necessary for the natural propagation of different trees and plants in our forests and grasslands.

It wasn't until 1978--with the revocation of the "10 a.m. policy" and the adoption of a "fire use policy" that encouraged wildland fire by prescription--that national fire management policy began to reflect the arguments of Leopold and his contemporaries.

By this time, much of the damage had been done already. After 75 years of pure suppression, combustible material had built up, and fires were beginning to show the problem with their ferocity.

While the number of fires started per year has remained relatively consistent, the size and magnitude of them has increased drastically. The buildup of combustible materials isn't the only factor in the increased instance of "mega-fires," but it is a major contributor.

In 1970, climate change and global warming came to the forefront of environmental science. In 1971, the Study of Man's Impact on Climate (SMIC), a conference of leading climate and environmental scientists, reported the danger posed by rapidly changing global conditions, caused by human activity.

Scientists focused on human activities that resulted in the emission of greenhouse gases, including, notably, the burning of fossil fuels for power and heat, and industrial agriculture. Both of these activities are driven by capitalist interests and defended by governmental policy.

MANY OF the initial responses to the Eagle Creek fire were to blame the 15-year-old boy entirely for the severity of the fire and for his "premeditated" actions. People in the comments section of CNN and other news outlets argued that the punishment should range from trying him as an adult for arson all the way to throwing him and his friends into the flames to die.

Blaming this child for the severity of the fire is tantamount to blaming the residents of Louisiana for the levees breaking during Hurricane Katrina.

Yes, he made an ill-informed decision that started a very destructive blaze in Oregon's beautiful forests. But the severity of this fire is due to years of government mismanagement of forests and the unfettered waste of logging companies.

The culprit is capitalism and its activity of extracting resources and producing goods in excess--with no regard for environmental health.

Some have argued that people who are enraged by the destruction of the famous hiking destination are nothing more than privileged hippies. These arguments assume that Indigenous groups haven't been leading the charge in Oregon against government malpractice regarding nature conservancy.

In June 2017, members of the Yakama Nation successfully stopped any further building of Union Pacific rail lines carrying crude oil through Mosier, Oregon. This came on the heels of a 2016 fire caused by the derailment of 16 train cars carrying crude oil through Mosier, which burned roughly 42,000 gallons of oil.

An investigation conducted by the Associated Press showed that almost 24,000 defects were found on the 58,000 miles of track used by U.S. oil trains. Union Pacific had the most violations on its tracks with about 800.

In 2015, Portland activists pressured then-Mayor Charlie Hales to back out of a $500 million deal with Canadian oil company Pembina to build an oil refinery that would transport crude oil, mostly to Asia.

Hales tried to slide the deal through by saying it fit the city's standards for environmental protection, but public pressure forced him to pull out of the multimillion-dollar deal, and he cited the potential environmental impact as his reasoning for pulling out. This hypocrisy shows that elected officials will protect abstract notions of private property to fit their political line at the moment.

CLIMATE CHANGE is creating hotter and drier conditions under which fires thrive--in forests where combustible material is in excess due to a century's worth of fire suppression techniques. These techniques are designed to protect private property vis-à-vis land designated for logging.

Capitalist interests have dictated U.S. environmental and fire management policy and driven our ecosystems into crisis. If we are going to protect the environment to ensure there is a world to live in--a world to win--it starts with correctly assessing the conditions that lead to the magnitude and destruction of environmental disasters such as the Eagle Creek fire.

Furthermore, we need to fight for a socialist alternative--one that endorses respect for our natural environment and puts the most advanced scientific knowledge at the forefront of our approach to dealing with environmental issues.

If we want to ensure these raging fires don't continue to put working-class communities at risk, we have to attack them at their root: climate change. That means attacking the system of capitalism as a whole in effort to promote human need, not corporate greed.

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