Fall colors were turning as I drove home through the Kenai Mountains last week, a drive I’ve made a hundred times and more. There were new colors as well — high on the sun-lit mountainsides, the summer’s extraordinary fireweed had gone to seed in an unusual shade of pink cotton. And then, after Cooper Landing, there were rust-colored treetops of scorched spruce cones, and tree silhouettes in charcoal black.
Driving through the scene of the Swan Lake fire was impressive — the way the fire had jumped around, leaving stands of green, the way it burned hotter in some places, the way the charcoal-black trees now go on and on. Smoke was still curling up from roadside timber piles. Waiting for a pilot car, I could gaze across acres of flattened black spruce toward apocalyptic vistas far up the mountain, bare mineral soil and black softwood follicles and active plumes of smoke.
It looked like a battlefield, or like the countryside in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Hemingway’s fishing story, in which Nick Adams comes home wounded from the war and finds “hills of burnt timber” where he used to camp and fish. The train drops him off at a foundation of stones split by the heat, and “there was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country.”
Nick Adams found solace catching trout with grasshoppers, though the first grasshoppers he found were all sooty black. I found solace, too, seeing green trees by the Russian River as I drove past. Next summer, I will be able to return there and go fishing, my illusions about nature intact.
“Cooper Landing Loves Dirty Yellow Shirts,” a banner proclaimed. The summer was over; the firefighters had saved the town. It was a very good feeling, as Hemingway might have put it. The residents had lost their summer to choking, eye-burning smoke, but they had not lost their settlement.
A few river bends down from the Russian, though, the highway entered the front edge of the burned-over country. Back in June, the fire started in an area prepared for a controlled burn. But there would be no controlling it when the summer rains never came, and then the fire got a second wind and jumped the highway and pushed out to 160,000 acres.
After a while, driving through mile after mile of blackened forest, it was hard not to wonder if this is what global warming looks like. Are we doing this to ourselves? The question loomed in the acrid haze. Is this what the planet will look like, 100 years from now?
Impressionism isn’t science. The Swan Lake fire can’t easily be claimed as more in-your-face evidence of climate catastrophe.
The black spruce forest here always burns. The cycle is around 80 years, according to ring-counting studies by scientists with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The regeneration that follows can be healthy.
The last Swan Lake area fire was in 1947, so it was about time. Old-timers still call this area the Kenai Burn. In 1947, a muddy road that became the Sterling Highway had just been pushed across the Kenai Peninsula. The first homesteaders arrived in Soldotna that fall as sooty black as Hemingway’s grasshoppers.
And yet. There are troubling developments this time around. Thunderstorms in spring, for instance — the Swan Lake fire started with a lightning strike on June 5. And flaming alpine tundra: When the fire climbed into the mountains, the dried-out mosses and berries, normally an effective break, carried the blaze into mountain valleys where the 1947 fire never reached.
Early indications are that this fire burned hotter, and deeper into the peat, than the 1947 Kenai Burn. This will affect how the land regenerates. The hottest peninsula fire in memory, the 1969 Swanson River fire, burned down to mineral soil. That fire followed an unusual two-year drought. This summer’s drought would be hard to call unusual, given the trend lines.
The ponds and bogs of the peninsula are drying out. Average temperatures in Alaska have gone up four degrees Fahrenheit in the past century. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This summer saw the hottest August on record for Anchorage, which followed July, the hottest month ever recorded here. In Alaska, 2.5 million acres were burning this summer, and in Siberia, six million acres.
Glaciers disappearing. Salmon streams trickling low and warm. For 30 years, science has been saying this would happen. The industrial world keeps burning fossil fuels and pristine Alaska suffers.
How is Alaska fighting back?
We’re pushing to lease and drill every possible oil prospect before it’s too late — before the world recognizes that we have enough oil in existing fields and reserves to push temperatures past the agreed-on danger line.
Our federal watchdogs want to ease up so oil and gas operators can leak more methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Our governor made only one concrete budget-cutting pledge, in the two campaign debates I saw: a smirking promise to eliminate the state’s climate science advisor.
The line of vehicles began to move. The flagger and pilot car, I realized, were no longer employed by the state fire safety office. After a week’s hiatus, Granite Construction was back to work on a $54 million project to improve 21 miles of the Sterling Highway.
Pale-green firetrucks were still rolling out hoses, smoke was rising from the cinders, and dump trucks were sculpting a passing lane that will help us burn fossil fuels faster.
As the state’s electronic sign said, where we entered the fire zone: “No Stopping.”
In the 1924 story, Nick Adams was able to strap on his pack and grab his leather rod-case and hike until he left the charcoal stumps behind. The town, Hemingway’s vet knew, “was burned, the country was burned over and changed, but it did not matter. It could not all be burned.”
But suppose it could.
Homer author Tom Kizzia was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. His New Yorker article on Alaska climate change was republished in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2017.
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