People in Boise and throughout the Northwest are struggling to breathe this week in smoke-filled air. During the first week of September, 81 large fires are burning over 1.4 million acres in nine northwestern states. Those fires are producing smoke at levels that humans and other animals should not breathe.
On Sept. 5, air quality classified as “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy,” or “hazardous” across large areas of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Montana, and the plume from Western fires was making its way across the Great Plains. While elderly people, children and those with compromised cardiopulmonary systems are especially at risk, unhealthy “red alert” air contains such a high amount of particulate matter that it damages the lungs of even young and healthy people.
Fires and smoke now extend well into September and October in the West and provide a visible example of a trend of increased fire severity and burn area that started in the mid-1980s. What causes this recent increase in fire activity? The short (and obvious) answer is fires burn more frequently and severely when it is warm and dry; increased global temperatures and drought are causing fires to burn more severely and extensively than in likely the past 1,000 years.
But human-caused fires are also responsible for our unhealthy air. Over the past two decades, J.K. Balch and research colleagues found in their 2017 report, that human-caused wildfires accounted for 84 percent of all wildfires. Human ignitions have tripled the length of the fire season, starting fires in the spring and fall when we don’t have natural ignitions. Human ignitions dominate an area seven times greater than that affected by lightning fires, and account for nearly half of all area burned.
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So are smoky skies the “new normal” for Idaho? Unfortunately, the answer may be yes. Wildfires are to the Western states what hurricanes are to the South: Fire is the way that the Earth’s changing climate most directly affects our lives. Indeed, one could argue that the human health effects of wildfire smoke on Western communities might exceed the health effects from hurricanes. A sobering paper by the University of Idaho’s John Abatzoglou and Park Williams demonstrates that human-caused climate change caused more than half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984.
So who is to blame for all the smoke? Look in the mirror. Then ask what you can do to help. Simply put, poor air quality can kill people. It is essential for all of us to put differences aside and join together to reduce human-caused fires in the state of Idaho. We need to work with our firefighters, land managers and fire scientists to limit human fire starts, and educate children and adults about how to reduce wildfire risks.
This week’s Eagle Creek Fire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, for example, was ignited by fireworks, and has burned almost 5,000 acres. It stranded and endangered 140 hikers Saturday night. In Boise, the Table Rock Fire of 2016 threatened homes and families and was also started by fireworks. Enacting legislation to limit fireworks is an example of “low-hanging fruit” to prevent future wildfires. We need to support our firefighting communities with our dollars and our votes; the very air we breathe depends on it.
Jen Pierce is an associate professor at Boise State in the Department of Geosciences. Her research focuses include fire history and climate change.
More research on NW fires
▪ Abatzoglou, J. T., and A. P. Williams. “Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113.42 (2016): 11770-11775
▪ Balch, J. K., Bradley, B. A., Abatzoglou, J. T., Nagy, R. C., Fusco, E. J., & Mahood, A. L. (2017). “Human-started wildfires expand the fire niche across the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(11), 2946-2951.