Last week has left quite an impression of hazy skies, surreal sun-downs, orange-gray landscapes, burning eyes, breathing difficulties, and scratchy throats with many of us. Smoke was blown into Western Washington from wildfires in British Columbia, and I would rather not imagine what it must have been like there. Meanwhile, we have had our own wildfires at Chuckanut Mountain and around Darrington; they may have added but little to the extreme concentration of smoke. And as everything is parched due to lack of rain for the past 50 plus days, there have been burn bans imposed and lifted and probably, while you are reading this, re-imposed.
For a native German, this Pacific Northwest scenario is pretty awing. We hear of wildfires in Southern Europe on a regular basis. But we hardly ever experience them in Germany. As a matter of fact, the only one I remember was the burning of the Lueneburg Heath, south of Hamburg, in 1975. It destroyed almost 31 square miles of forests, moors, and heath. For comparison: Germany’s size is approximately 138,000 square miles.
My family had been vacationing in the Lueneburg Heath that summer, and I remember my mother saying that if anybody dropped just as much as one burning match, the parched landscape would go up in flames like tinder. Well, a couple of weeks after we had returned home from quite a few hikes through sunburnt heath, withered moors, and austere, dusty villages, the Heath was burning. Arson, accidents, and incidents created a catastrophe that made the news nationwide. The fire lasted for ten days and killed seven people. I cannot remember anything similar in Germany ever since. And we certainly didn’t smell any of the smoke some 270 miles further down south.
Meanwhile, over here and by last weekend, there have been burnt over 1, 470 square miles in around 140 wildfires in southern British Columbia – almost 50 times the area of what burnt in Germany back in 1975. Somehow it makes me stop wondering that we saw smoke.
Only years later, I learnt that much of the extent of the Lueneburg Heath wildfire was due to prior storm damages that hadn’t been cleared and that made access to the seats of fire extremely difficult and dangerous. Added to this was a predominance of pine trees. I imagine this to be only two of the reasons why wildfires over here spread so incredibly fast and furiously.
If you ever had the chance to walk through a German forest and a Pacific Northwest one, the difference will strike you immediately. The rain forests here are dense, often inaccessible, without roads or paths, and of dramatic geography. They are enormous in size, and they are full of thick underbrush. German forests are nowhere as huge. In my small, but densely settled mother country, they are accessible through and through. Basically, they are seen to tree by tree. Sick or dead trees are hewn and removed; new, healthy ones are planted in their stead. Forest workers tend to storm damages quickly. It is doable pretty much anywhere in Germany. Our landscapes are comparatively tame.
When I smell wood smoke in Germany, somebody is most likely starting a very rustic barbecue. When I smell wood smoke here in Western Washington, it might be the same. Or somebody is heating a home or burning yard waste. Or something has gone badly wrong. As in a wildfire. Either way – smoke means fire. But the causes and sizes differ.