From Good to Bad: Air Quality Impacts of Wildfires Made Visible

“Some call me nature, others call me Mother Nature. (…) How you choose to live each day, whether you regard or disregard me, doesn’t really matter to me. One way or the other, your actions will determine your fate, not mine. I am Nature. I will go on. I am prepared to evolve. Are you?”
Julia Roberts, Nature is Speaking: Mother Nature, Conservation International

The above short clip shows wildfire smoke obscuring the sky and making nearby hills disappear. While this year’s wildfire season in the western US is not over yet, a lot of people have already had to breathe very bad air. Itching eyes, difficulty breathing, a sore throat, or coughing were some of the short-term effects many usually healthy people felt. It was harder on children, the elderly, or on people who already suffered from other diseases like asthma or heart disease. And what will be the long-term effects?

And there are more questions. What will be next year? Will there be another bad wildfire season? Should we just move away? Where to? Tornado alley? The flooded South? And maybe most importantly: Now that more and more people experience the effects of climate change and global warming first hand, will we be willing to change some of our habits and also push for a change in policies?

Unfortunately, whatever we do will not immediately change the situation. We will probably have to suffer from our past and present sins some time into the future. But I would like to believe it is not too late yet to change for the better. Not too late for us as a species I mean, not for Nature.

Missoula Skies Obscured by Wildfire Smoke

Missoula Skies Obscured by Wildfire Smoke.

I woke up at about five o’clock in the morning coughing. Not from a cold but from the smoky air in my bedroom. While there is no immediate danger in Missoula, air quality here has finally reached hazardous levels in one of the worst wildfire seasons ever. Having hoped for a clear summer after a long and cold winter followed by a wet spring, I was disappointed. Summer came full force with hotter than average temperatures and almost no rain. Montana is now the state with the most wildfires and acres burned as well as home of the number one priority fire in the nation. Evacuation orders are in place for some communities. Two firefighters have lost their lives fighting the fires. And there is no end in sight.

Earlier last century, forest management relied on fire prevention and suppression only to realize that could not stop massive wildfires from occurring. In fact, we have learned that fire suppression can eventually increase wildfire occurrence and intensity. By now we look at natural wildfires as essential to a working ecosystem and even use prescribed burning in hope to reduce catastrophic wildfires. However, after decades of fire suppression and under the influence of global warming (Yes, Mr. President!), we today see more wildfires and longer wildfire seasons.

Seems to me we now get what we asked for. While humankind has acquired a wealth of knowledge, we still know so little. And most importantly, we do not yet understand complex systems. But we often behave as if we would. Obviously human life has an impact on this planet. Are we willing to live up to that?