Following the catastrophic fires which scorched the West Coast last year, new wildfires have already burnt some three million acres this summer – marking what has become a terrifying trend. With drier climates and higher temperatures, the likelihood of forest fires wreaking havoc each year has become a new reality for residents of the Pacific Northwest and California. Unfortunately, these effects are not isolated. Smoke from western fires spread inland and across the country, reaching as far as 3,000 miles away.
As the apocalyptic photos from 2020 illustrated, without enough rain and wind the smoke refuses to dissipate creating a dangerous vortex of smoke across the coastline. The severe drought conditions that have come to characterize the coast’s once vibrant summers have resulted in over 70 wildfires to date. The largest of which – the 281,208-acre Bootleg Fire in South-Eastern Oregon – is only 22% contained despite over 2 thousand firefighting personnel battling the flames which threaten to combine with the nearby Log fire.
Contending not only with flames and property destruction, experts have documented “fire clouds” or gigantic, towering accumulations of ash and clouds which stretch six miles into the sky. In the right conditions, these anomalies can create their own weather such as “fire tornadoes”. Generating intense heat and dry lightning that endangers the tinderbox of forest below, pyrocumulus clouds and their more dangerous cousins, pyrocumulonimbus clouds, have become the monstrous backdrop for this growing inferno.
Washington, which becomes the upwind vacuum for fires in California and Oregon depending on wind currents off of the Pacific, has its own fires to deal with. Disfiguring a natural asset that cannot easily be replaced, the beautiful Okanogan and Umatilla National forests have sadly been caught in the crossfires. Yakima, Wenatchee, Spokane, and Clarkston are grappling with wildfires in their vicinities – threatening more than 1,500 homes in the case of Wenatchee. Following the aftermath of 2020’s historic wildfire season, debates over fire management raged in many state legislatures achieving little consensus on preventative methods.
What was once a state-level issue is quickly becoming a national one as even Manhattan’s skyline is darkened by a smokey haze. Carried thousands of miles from Canada and the West Coast, this smoke is affecting the health of millions of Americans every day leading to air quality warnings for the worst-affected areas. The thicker atmosphere of smoke is partially due to an area of high pressure that prevents the smoke from dissipating as is typical for the country’s weather system.
Worsening respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD, the particles carried in the smoke are as small as 2.5 microns which is just small enough to enter humans’ lungs. However, because they are being carried so far from their original source, those with respiratory concerns are in greater danger of unknowingly putting themselves at risk.
Assuredly, the topic of wildfires will enter the national debate on climate change more fiercely than ever. But will it be enough? Finding a solution to problems as big as drought and changing climates is a conversation multiple years in the making, yet progress continues to be slow. With that in mind, let’s not forget the words of our dear friend, Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”