We Didn’t Start the Fire, but We Increased the Risk

A hand holds a lit cigarette in the foreground with a wildfire and burning trees behind it. Illustration by Míceal Munroe-Allsup.

Many students continue to mourn the loss of our beloved Designated Smoking Areas (DSAs), which were removed when Lewis & Clark became a smoke-free campus in 2018. The DSAs served as a social area, a place where meeting new people was inevitable. Many students feel the deficient social scene without them. While this loss of a community space has been a frequent topic of discussion throughout the student body, the removal of the DSAs also carries a much more pressing threat.

Due to the absence of DSAs, wooded areas off-campus have become increasingly popular places to smoke. While going into the forest seems like an opportunity to take in the scenery and destress, in an instant that pleasant moment could turn into a widespread disaster. For example, say someone does not completely put out their cigarette, or simply drops it on the ground. Sometimes, one spark can be enough to set a forest alight.

According to the Keep Oregon Green Association, in Oregon alone 24 wildfires have been caused by smoking, which have led to three acres burnt and $32,645 in costs.

While this number seems relatively small, it is important to consider the fact that in the past few years, the West Coast has seen a drastic increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Historically, the West Coast experienced cyclical, low-intensity fires that kept forests healthy by clearing out brush and insects considered to be pests, providing nutrients for the soil and giving dormant seeds an opportunity to sprout. However, fire suppression became increasingly popular as the West Coast became more populated. This historical cycle has thus been disrupted, resulting in a build-up of highly flammable brush, which is a primary cause of the recent wildfire epidemic.

Another reason for this increase in wildfires is climate change, as climate change has caused an increase in temperature throughout the globe. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on the West Coast, 10 out of the past 15 years have been the warmest years on record. Thus, this warming has caused longer, more intense periods of drought and build-up of dry brush, the perfect fuel for wildfires.

One might think that the Pacific Northwest is at a generally low risk for wildfires due to high precipitation and moderate temperatures. This has been historically true according to the Oregon Forests Resource Institute, as the temperate-rainforest biome has experienced cyclical, high-intensity fires (due to the accumulation of brush over long periods of time) every 100 to 450 years. Yet, we are living in a quickly changing world, and our rainy slice of paradise is not exempt to this change.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science created an interactive web application called “Future Urban Climates,” where scientists analyzed how the climates of urban areas will change by 2080 and matched each city’s expected climate with the current climate of another location. By 2080, the climate of Portland is expected to be similar to the climate of the metropolitan area of Sacramento, California.

The effects of climate change will only worsen over time, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report released last October, we are predicted to feel its most severe effects much sooner than we originally anticipated. Thus, this wildfire epidemic will continue to persist and will most likely worsen.

Thus, with these factors increasing the risk of catastrophic forest fires, it may seem that there is little we can contribute as individuals. While we as individuals may not be able to effect monumental change to the state of our climate, we still have the ability to decrease risk by eliminating hazards, such as the presence of smoking in sensitive areas. That being said, DSAs should be brought back. Students are continuing and will continue to smoke, and we should provide a safe, semi-contained space in order to do so without the threat of potential environmental destruction.

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