A New Kind of Map
Navigational aids for the Pyrocene
After Leslie and I explored Washington’s Mount St. Helens National Monument in August 2021, we pointed our camper van, Next Chapter, toward central Oregon. We camped in Mt. Hood National Forest and hiked around a beautiful lake, and then made our way toward the town of Bend, which is pretty much at the geographic center of the state. Once a logging town, it’s become a high-desert hub for outdoor recreation, from kayaking on the Deschutes River (which runs through the middle of it) to skiing on nearby Mt. Bachelor, hiking, fishing and mountain biking.
West of Bend lies the Three Sisters Wilderness, named for a collection of volcanic peaks in the Cascade Range and offering many miles of scenic hiking trails. The wilderness is within the Deschutes and Willamette National Forests, which on paper look like a paradise of rivers, streams and lakes. Never having spent much time there, we thought it a promising area to explore for a few days.
We decided to start our exploration a bit northwest of bustling Bend at the smaller, quieter town of Sisters (population a little over 2,000). Our initial plan was to follow the scenic McKenzie Highway west out of town and over McKenzie Pass, eventually looping north and east back toward Sisters over Santiam Pass. We’d be in the Deschutes National Forest the entire time, and we were counting on finding a quiet place to camp, ideally close to water.
As we set off, however, we soon found ourselves driving through a wildfire burn scar, the road bracketed for mile after mile by blackened snags and scraggly regenerating brush. (Later research indicates it was from the Milli fire, a lightning-caused blaze that scorched 24,000 acres in 2017.)
It was also growing increasingly smoky, apparently because of an active wildfire somewhere in the general area. (This would turn out to be the Middle Fork Complex, a dozen lightning-caused fires that ignited July 29, eventually merged, and continued to smolder until October.) By the time we reached McKenzie Pass and stopped at an overlook with a view of the landscape ahead, we could see that the area we hoped to explore was choked with smoke and unhealthy to visit. We turned back.
This is what traveling the West has become during much of the year: an enervating process of dodging active fires, avoiding air polluted by smoke from active fires, and revising itineraries when destinations that appeared attractive on paper turn out to have been so heavily damaged by past fires that they no longer offer any pleasant places to camp or explore on foot.
This is also what it is like to be living — and exploring the outdoors — in the age that environmental historian and author Stephen J. Pyne has dubbed the Pyrocene. He coined the term in a 2015 essay, and it is the subject of his most recent book, published in 2021: The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next.
The term is a proposed refinement of the concept of the Anthropocene, an informal designation for the current geological epoch — officially referred to by scientists as the Holocene — which defines it as one distinguished by the influence of human activity on the planet’s atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other processes. In Pyne’s revision, the principal way in which this human influence manifests itself is through our manipulation of fire, broadly defined to include the burning of fossil fuels.
Pyrocene is a fascinating and disturbing book, a distillation of Pyne’s many years of work to understand and explain the role of fire in our world, and its relationship with humans and history. He describes our current predicament as one in which human activity has fundamentally deranged fire’s presence on the planet. We’ve done this, Pyne suggests, in three ways:
· By excluding fire from places it should be (and was, before we began suppressing it), allowing combustible biomass density to increase to levels that feed unstoppable infernos.
· By repeatedly and often inadvertently igniting fires in these vulnerable biomes (looking at you, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.).
· By creating a hotter and more unstable climate that amplifies fires and allows them to invade environments previously not conducive to burning — the Siberian arctic, the Amazon basin — through our combustion of fossil fuels and the resulting planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.
He writes: “Add up all these fire influences — those directly through flame and indirectly through smoke, removed fire, fire-enabled land use, and a warming climate — and you have the contours of a planetary fire age, the fire-informed equivalent of an ice age. You have a Pyrocene.”
Pyne’s book is a sort of guidebook for this dismal new age. And as Leslie and I travel the western United States, in what increasingly seems like one never-ending fire season, we’ve found it necessary to turn to new navigational aids to help us plot our own course across this unfamiliar terrain.
The primary tool is one I’ve mentioned in a previous post: an app called Gaia GPS, which runs on tablets and smartphones, and can also be accessed online with a laptop or desktop computer. It allows users to import various data layers and superimpose them on any of various base mapping tools, including U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps. (The basic Gaia GPS service is free; access to advanced features requires a paid subscription.)
For the purposes of exploration and finding off-the-grid camp sites, one of the layers we use identifies public lands, and the management agencies that administer them — the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as many others. This is handy for ensuring we’re not trespassing on private property when we head off down a dirt road in search of a place to sleep.
But for navigating the Pyrocene, four data layers are indispensible: Wildfires (Current), Wildfires (U.S., Historical), Air Quality (Current) and Air Quality (Tomorrow).
The air quality tools tap into the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow platform, and are useful for avoiding wildfire smoke. The historical fire data shows the burn areas of past wildfires, color coded for when they occurred: last year, 2-4 years ago, 5-9 years ago, 10-14 years ago, and 15 or more years ago. This helps us avoid areas where hazards from recent fires still exist, as well as those where meaningful forest recovery has yet to occur. The current U.S. fire information is updated daily using the database maintained by the National Interagency Fire Center, and helps us change course mid-trip when new fires ignite or existing ones spread.
Unfortunately, fire and its footprints have become our constant companions, from the Sierra Nevada to the Cascades and the Rockies, even in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. Looking at the mapping data as we plan our trips, and experiencing first-hand the physical effects of new and old fires on the ground as we travel around the West, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that in the Pyrocene, there are three kinds of landscapes: Those that have burned, those that are burning, and those that are going to burn.
We eventually found a beautiful campsite a few miles outside Sisters during our Oregon visit last summer. It was in a verdant mixed-conifer stand in a part of the Deschutes National Forest that the 2017 Milli fire missed, right on the bank of a beautiful trout stream. We hung hammocks in the shade, cooled our feet in the river when the afternoon grew hot, and spent two peaceful nights serenaded by the matchless music of moving water.
There’s still a lot of beauty out there. See it now.
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As a born and raised Oregonian, your Cascade Range travels provide a walk down memory lane, especially Mirror Lake and the environs around Mt Hood.
An ol’ college buddy of mine lives in Sisters Or, and he’s hosting a 50 year reunion for eight of us UofO grads and spouses this coming September. For a bunch of old farts, we’re still out hiking and exploring new and old trails. I look forward to sharing the APP Gaia GPS with them. Cheers, Doug