The pool is closed, the kids can’t play outside – we’re all trying to avoid harmful smoke from wildfires burning far away.
Last week my kids went to a nature daycamp in Klamath Falls, Oregon, near the California border, where we live. It was meant to be a week of roaming the hills, learning about local species like fence lizards and sagebrush. Instead, they looked at pictures of these species while staying inside with all the windows firmly shut.
Klamath Falls kids have been spending a lot of time inside this summer – days and days indoors, sweating and playing with Lego and watching TV. The outdoor pool has been closed. Our baseball team, the Klamath Falls Gems, cancelled the rest of the season.
This year’s fire season in the west started out early and is on pace to be one of the worst ever. For those in the path of the flames, it is a major emergency, a life-altering, even life-threatening disaster. For a much larger group of westerners, these fires inflict a lesser but chronic cost. We are smoked in.
This isn’t a one-time occurrence. We had a “smoke wave” like this last summer too. There have been so many wildfires in our area in recent years that smoke is officially becoming the season after summer and before what-happened-to-fall.
There are dozens of major fires currently burning across the west, including the Carr fire in and near Redding, California, which is over 150,000 acres. On Sunday this and other blazes in the state prompted Donald Trump to declare a disaster. Eight major fires are also burning in southern Oregon, and the governor declared a statewide emergency in mid-July.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a color-coded system to communicate how bad the smoke is. It ranges from green, for clear, to red, which is unhealthy for everyone, and purple, meaning “very unhealthy”. There’s even a worse category called “hazardous,” which is a kind of a muddy crimson I’ve come to associate with the apocalypse. In Klamath Falls, we’ve hit “red” for at least part of every day for the last 16 days, and “purple” for 12 of those days. Friday was hazardous.
This increase isn’t random. It is at least partly because of climate change. The west is simply hotter. And hotter weather means drier vegetation. One study from 2016 suggests that climate change has doubled the acreage of forest fires since 1984. And it will get worse. Another 2016 paper predicts that climate change will cause 60% more frequent and 30% more intense “smoke waves” across much of the western US by 2050.
As the Sacramento Bee wrote about the fires: “This is climate change, for real and in real time. We were warned that the atmospheric build-up of man-made greenhouse gas would eventually be an existential threat.”
We were warned. And yet here we are.
High levels of wildfire smoke are bad for everyone’s health. But they are especially bad for elderly people, pregnant women, and children. The very fine particles of burnt matter in the smoke cause sore threats, irritated eyes, headaches, heart attacks, and dangerous acute breathing problems like asthma attacks and bronchitis. In the longer term, they could be linked to an increased chance of developing asthma or other lung diseases, though studies are in short supply.
I am an environmental journalist. I try to maintain a certain emotional detachment from my beat. If I really felt all the things we humans have done to our planet, I might not be able to keep reporting on it month after month. But every so often my detachment fails.
Dropping my kids off for the first day of a “wild camp” that had to be completely moved indoors because of the smoke, I lost it. I was filled with a howling anger. Humanity has known about climate change for decades, and we have done next to nothing to stop it. We’ve been too greedy, too selfish, too short-sighted. And now, my kids can’t even go outside without choking on the result. It isn’t their fault, but they are paying for it. And they’ll be paying for it the rest of their lives.
One of my neighbors, Mark Neupert, an archeologist at the Oregon Institute of Technology, was eating outside with his wife and kids on an orange day, trying to get a little relief from the smoke quarantine, and he found himself thinking of the Anasazi, ancestors of today’s Hopi and Zuni. They left their previous homeland in today’s Four Corners region, in the south-western US, in the late-13th century because of an extended drought. He wondered: who was the first to leave?
I asked Jia Coco Liu, the scientist behind the “smoke wave” paper, if she would move away if she lived in one of the counties her model predicts will have the worst smoke. She told me that if she had the option to send her kids away during the summer, or if she could afford an air filter, she’d stay. But “if I can find a better job elsewhere that is smoke-wave-free”, she’d consider moving.
As of now, I have no plans to move. I am considering putting solar-powered air conditioning in our house, which hasn’t needed it since it was built in 1929. I realize I am extremely fortunate to be able to afford air conditioning. This is one way climate change will magnify the growing inequality in our country.
Many people will have it much worse than I do. People are already dying in fires, floods, and heat waves. Their livelihoods are taking a hit and some will see their whole way of life crumble. Forests and reefs will die. Glaciers will disappear.
Among these huge, sweeping harms there will be small, sad ones: childhood summers spent trapped inside in stifling heat or the filtered chill of air-conditioning, instead of outside climbing trees and catching bugs.