The West has been on fire all month, with dream homes falling to a combustive punch, wild horses seared by flame and suffocated by smoke, even a rare “firenado” dancing across a landscape in which 7 million acres have been burned this year.
It was shocking to be lazing through the rituals of summer at Lake Chelan, one of the world’s most beautiful bodies of water, in Washington’s eastern Cascades, when wildfires arrived with a cannonade of lightning — blazes that have now taken lives and forced towns to evacuate.
But even as eye-tearing smoke, red sun and yellow-shirted firefighters have become a part of life this summer, many of us on the West Coast can’t stop thinking about a greater threat — earthquakes, specifically the Really Big One. The unclenching of two large plates along the Pacific shore from Northern California to Vancouver Island would be, by consensual predictions, the worst natural disaster in North American history.
It happened once, more than 300 years ago, a magnitude 9 shake that was 60 times stronger than the 1906 earthquake that left San Francisco in ruins. It most assuredly will happen again, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in a hundred years.
It’s ghastly to think about: 10,000 or more buildings crumbling. Bridges swaying, buckling, shucking off cars. A tangle of natural gas lines causing explosions no terrorist could pull off. And then, just as the shaken crust of the North American plate has finally settled, a tsunami from an ocean heave would bury small coastal communities. More than 13,000 people would die, most of them under a mountain of seawater. Throughout the region, a million people would be temporarily displaced.
We’ve known about all of this for some time. The Pacific Northwest is so beautiful because of the still-active tectonic forces that have shaped it. But this summer, The New Yorker published a piece that wrapped old news in new terror. And what had been buried in the recesses of Northwestern minds suddenly flared. The collective anxiety has not gone away.
The larger question, from Seattle to Sagamore Hill, is how we fit disaster into our daily lives — a pact with the known unknown. There is no such thing as a safe place on this earth. More than 90 percent of Americans live in an area with at least a moderate risk of tornadoes, or wildfires, or hurricanes, or floods, or earthquakes. Not to mention the larger threat of climate change, exacerbating most of the above.
You gauge the odds; that’s really the crux of choosing where to live. And you hope your political leaders have the foresight to spend money on things that may not have an immediate benefit.
In the Northwest, these are the odds: There is a 10 percent to 15 percent chance of a magnitude 9 earthquake happening over the next 50 years, and a 30 percent chance of a smaller, though still enormous, collision of plates. If you live in the Ring of Fire — that horseshoe of seismic activity running along the Pacific shore from Chile to Alaska, Japan to New Zealand — you live where most of the world’s earthquakes happen.
I’ve been trying to make peace with these calculations ever since geologists mapped out the Seattle Fault more than 20 years ago. Smaller than the big Cascadia line along the coast, this east-west fault runs right under Interstate 90, beneath the city’s downtown skyscrapers and the new buildings of Amazon’s corporate kingdom, under the stadiums where the Seahawks and Mariners play, and below my family’s 110-year-old house.
It’s somewhat reassuring that the thick walls of my home’s foundation have survived three relatively minor earthquakes, in 1949, 1965 and 2001, without even a hairline fracture. And I certainly sleep better knowing that the timbered frame of my old house is now bolted, in most places, to that foundation.
I’ve got my water filter from REI, my emergency supplies, my propane. I have a woodstove for emergency heat, decent vino in the cellar, canned goods with an expiration date far beyond the Donald Trump moment.
But it’s laughable, all of it, in the big scheme of things. You just have to hope that the surface plates remain stuck, in a wrestler’s tension grip, for another century or so. And you obsess, or try to parse, those odds, all while realizing that you wouldn’t have stayed here without the conditions that created that risk.
Timothy Egan writes for The New York Times.