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Green Pacific Northwest Sees an Unfamiliar Sight: Smoke and Fire

There were 47 large wildfires burning in the United States as of August 4th, according to the Forest Service. In addition, fires in British Columbia were sending smoke down through northern Washington state, leaving Seattle with the worst recorded air quality in the lower 48 states on Friday. The Canadian and other smoke plumes are clear in the satellite image below, captured August 2nd.

Wildfires, indicated here by red marks, dot the Pacific Northwest.

Wildfires, indicated here by red marks, dot the Pacific Northwest.

The Pacific Northwest is normally cool, wet, and not prone to wildfires. But the Western U.S. has been especially hard hit by climate change, warming almost twice as fast as the global average, as Pacific Standard reported earlier this year. Large fires in the region have increased by 1,000 percent since 1960. This year's fire season in British Columbia is its worst since 1958, the Canadian Press reports.

Writing in Pacific Standard in April, Bob Berwyn reported on one research team's proposed solution: Stop building homes near forests, where they're more likely to burn than in more urban areas; stop preventative vegetation thinning, which the team argues doesn't work; and allow fires to burn in uninhabited areas, to help plants adapt to a future in which climate change is expected to lead to more wildfires. That last bit of advice means that residents of the Pacific Northwest must accept that their iconic emerald landscape will look very different in the future.

"We can actively help those landscapes be prepared for conditions that may exist in the future by using fire," fire researcher Max Moritz told Berwyn. "We need the foresight to help guide these ecosystems in a healthy direction now so they can adjust in pace with our changing climate. That means embracing some changes while we have a window to do so."