Some say the world will end in fire

Camping and fire go together like–well, like marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers. There is something both romantic and primal about a campfire crackling in the dark, sparks rising toward the stars, the smell of woodsmoke drifting on the night air.

Yet fire and RVs don’t play well together, as underscored Monday, when a two-alarm fire in Oakland, California, engulfed cars and RVs in a homeless encampment under Interstate 880, near the Bay Bridge. The encampment, which spans two-dozen city blocks and has approximately 300 residents, has had dozens of blazes in the past year; an April fire killed one and displaced five. Among the hazards confronting firefighters were exploding propane canisters, and RVs in general are notoriously flammable because of their lightweight construction and heavy reliance on petrochemical materials.

The camping public and fire don’t play well together, either. As the RVs in Oakland were going up in toxic smoke, less than 200 miles to the east, a wildfire was threatening the largest grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park. By last night, the Washburn Fire had consumed more than 3,500 acres of forest, and increasingly adverse weather conditions had reduced its containment from 22% to 17%. Although a definitive cause for the fire has not been established, park officials said it almost definitely was the result of “human activity.”

In Utah, meanwhile, numerous forest fires were raging across more than 13,000 acres combined–with 23 of the 26 fires started between last Friday and Sunday caused by, yes, human activity. Four people were arrested and accused of starting the largest conflagration, the Halfway Hill blaze, which by early this week had churned through more than 10,000 acres. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the four had been camping, started a fire at a campsite, then “left abruptly” when they saw it “erupt and spread rapidly.” They didn’t bother reporting the incident to anyone.

Fire officials across the western states have been warning for months that 2022 was shaping up as a banner year for wildland fires, with fires becoming more intense and more frequent. Yet despite the obvious dangers, the camping public has been turning out in near-record numbers, often with little observable recognition of the increased risks–and too often without modifying behavior that might offset those risks. The predictable result is more charred wilderness, more threats to manmade structures in the urban-wilderness interface and more smoke-filled air affecting human health for hundreds of miles downwind.

But there are two other consequences that aren’t getting enough recognition. One is that as with any prolonged battle, the front-line soldiers–the firefighters–are getting burned out, pun not intended. Yet even as seasoned firefighters drop out, as reported this week by the Colorado Sun, fire agencies across the country are seeing fewer people applying for firefighting positions to replenish the ranks. That can’t end well.

A second, more troubling–because of its long-term implications–consequence is the tainting of drinking water with PFAS “forever chemicals,” found in firefighting foams often used against wildfires. Although still in the early testing stages, more than 100 city and town water systems across Colorado apparently have PFAS levels exceeding recently revised EPA-recommended guidelines. The city of Frisco, about 55 miles west of Denver, has warned its 3,000 residents that their water has 1,000 times the standard, nevertheless adding that this is “a concern, not a crisis.”

The “concern”? That PFAS chemicals threaten human health with compromised immune systems, increases in cholesterol, decreases in infant birth weights, decreases in liver function, thyroid problems and high blood pressure during pregnancies, the Colorado Sun reported. The chemicals also interfere with vaccines, decreasing their effectiveness. In short, in trying to save the landscape we’re creating threats to our own well-being. Heads I win, tails you lose.

What all of the above suggests is the need for a deep rethink of what it means to go camping, of RVing and of appropriate behavior in the “great outdoors,” which is looking increasingly diminished. At the very least, it’s time to pack up the marshmallows and crackers and to look at the stars rather than at a campfire’s sparks.

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