Public Lands & Waters photo

When the fire is coming through the meadow, rushing on the wind, and you’re fighting it with your thin little hose and running at it with double-armful buckets of sloshing water, what you notice—in addition to the dread or terror—is how damned hard it is to breathe. You think it’s the adrenaline—I can’t be this out of shape, you think—but really, the smoke is all it is. It keeps your lungs from working right. It’s as though you’re suffocating.

The fires have destroyed people’s homes in the West, just as the floods of rising tides and strong hurricanes have destroyed people’s homes, and lives, on the coast. We have stepped through a gate this year, a gate we knew we were walking toward, in which almost anyone and everyone, rich or poor, can become an environmental refugee, or victim.

You can’t live in 8 feet of water and you can’t breathe in a valley so clotted with smoldering smoke that it absorbs even the headlights of slow-driving vehicles, creeping past one another in exodus.

It’s no way to live.

The season-ending rains and snows in the West are upon us now, after a summer of asphyxiation. Who knows the health costs, now or future, from such a summer-long war? Eight million acres burned. Most of them were in need of burning. The forest needs fire the way the prairie needs rain.

Some politicians are saying that if we had built roads into the last wild places in our national forests and reduced the size of our national monuments and “managed” the wilderness, by clear-cutting it to hell and back (ignoring the fact that nothing dries out a forest like a clear-cut), none of this would have happened. This is like saying if the people of Houston—my hometown—had put buckets out on their porches, they could have caught enough drops of rain to prevent the floods. These fearmongers and profiteers of the catastrophic should be expunged from what is left of our political system as quickly as possible.

Now the air is clean again. Our heart rates are slowing. We know better. The landscape of spring will be amazing. Morels will carpet the tender, ebony soil. Dead needles will cast themselves down in a mat as if to hold the blackened, scorched soil. Wildflowers will blaze without heat. Elk cows, with fatted calves, will swarm the burns, emerald grasses belly-high. Blackened spars will vibrate, drum, with the cacophony of woodpeckers. Bluebirds will nest in these pocket-sized cavities. Skies will be blue.

But the larger world we have made will not change. We are still marching through one gate after another. As outdoorsmen, we are good at noticing the externals. The fundamentals have changed. The elk will be fine. The people, maybe not so much.

Rick Bass is the author of The Deer Pasture and more than 30 other books. He lives in northwest Montana, where he is a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council. Read more of his work for F&S here.