Out of Bounds

East Coast Comeuppance

I suppose it’s not a surprise that some of us chuckled a bit when smoke descended on the East Coast and Gotham residents responded as if the apocalypse was finally upon us

By Rob Breeding

There’s a bit of a flex going on in the fire-prone American West as continental winds carried the smoke from Canadian wildfires to the East Coast. 

New York City seemed like Mordor in the gray haze, media reports suggested.

The schadenfreude came fast and furious. From some quarters of the Northern Rockies the reaction was something like, “See what we deal with in the hinterlands.” 

To be fair, while some have reacted that way, I think this sort of callousness is mostly amplified by social media. Most folks, regardless of where they reside, tend to be sympathetic when others are hammered by misfortune. 

I believe people just happen to be decent that way.

But there’s no more insular community in the United States than the five boroughs of New York City. We’ve all seen that famous map on the cover of “The New Yorker” magazine depicting the country as downtown Manhattan, the Hudson River, a thin slice of New Jersey and then a blank sweep of emptiness until you reach the Pacific.

Or maybe you’re familiar with the Talking Heads song, “The Big Country.” As he flies from coast to coast, the band’s frontman, David Byrne, plaintively describes the landscape of flyover country below and sings, “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.”

I love that band, as I do New York, but there are some things New Yorkers just don’t get.

Anyway, I suppose it’s not a surprise that some of us chuckled a bit when smoke descended on the East Coast and Gotham residents responded as if the apocalypse was finally upon us. In Montana, the apocalypse is just another day in August.

So while most of us are wishing New Yorkers no ill will, it’s kind of our shared guilty pleasure to see the city suddenly flummoxed by a phenomenon most of the rest of the country long ago learned to coexist with. 

There is more to life than finding within walking distance of the subway a great bagel shop or a bodega that serves up the best chopped cheese.

Once we set our unproductive schadenfreude aside — and a bite of a steamy chopped cheese would go a long way toward facilitating that process — we are still left with a trifecta of plagues fueling fires across the West: overgrown forests, drought and climate change, and encroaching development in the wildland–urban interface.

We generally see a raft of legislation every summer purporting to fix the problem by cleaning up our forests. Few of them will. The magnitude of the unhealthy-forest problem belies simplistic, small-scale initiatives that only produce more product for the timber industry, which by itself isn’t a bad thing. But true restorative logging is expensive, while commercially viable projects can leave even more fire-prone landscapes in their wake.

President Trump may have inadvertently delivered the greatest example of stereotypical New York ignorance of the West when he suggested California ought to rake clean forest duff to prevent the kind of fires that ravaged that state in the last decade.

Still, the idea isn’t completely half-baked. There is a way to rake forest floors on a large scale. It’s called controlled burns. Unfortunately, controlled burns only work if the forest is first thinned, and as mentioned, thinning that leaves older, fire-resistant trees behind, is expensive.

Fixing America’s forests requires the kind of unified public initiative that resulted in the Public Works Administration funding the building of dams, airports and schools across the country in the 1930s, or President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act that built the modern interstate system.

You need a country bound by a common purpose to do great things. We’ve become, sadly, a country defined instead by what divides us. 

Making fun of New Yorkers whining about a bit of smoke is harmless. The divisions that stand in the way of us doing great things again is anything but.

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