I was talking to a mountain biker at Galena Lodge just north of Ketchum about all the smoke hanging in the Sawtooths.
“You don’t mind biking with this air quality?” I asked him.
“Oh, you mean the smoke? Nah. It comes and it goes. You know it’s just the way it is this time of year.”
I thought about that and considered the 42 years I’ve lived in Idaho, whether persistent smoke, turning sunrises from egg-yolk yellow to hazy orange, was “the way it is this time of year.”
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Without a doubt, Idaho has always had wildfires in the summer to contend with, whether range fires or forest fires. I remember waking up in the middle of the night about 10 years ago and seeing the rimrock ablaze just across the river from our farm. And who could forget the fire in the Foothills above Boise and that astonishing front-page picture in the Statesman of the hellish flames and smoke rising behind the Capital building.
Still, NASA’s climate prediction for the Northwest is an increase in heat, drought, and wildfires. The Pacific Standard journal reports that large fires have increased 1,000 percent in the Northwest since 1960 and that the western U.S. has been especially hard hit by climate change, warming almost twice as fast as the global average. High-pressure ridges locking in heat are not unusual for Idaho at the end of summer, but days of forecasts of triple-digit temperatures are. Those temperatures belong in July, not in September.
All of this thinking led me to wonder about the laissez-faire attitude of the young mountain biker I encountered near Galena Summit. Didn’t he realize that the smoke enshrouding the Sawtooth, Boulder, and White Cloud mountains of central Idaho, masking spectacular vistas for days on end, was not business as usual? Of course he didn’t. He was probably born in the 1990s and had grown up recreating in increasingly hot, smoky summers. But what is the excuse of old-timers who, absent any review of actual Idaho weather history, assert that Idaho summers have always been full of fire and smoke?
Memory is a strange thing. I’ve read we remember what we want to, and so it’s important to go to the books, reports, overviews, or whatever, to be able to see actual trends. Because all of our memories can be so faulty and our experiences so limited, sometimes I’ve longed to be able to transport myself and collectively our population to an Idaho that existed say, 100 years ago. Environmentally speaking, it probably wouldn’t all be good. At that point in time there was unregulated mining operations. But there was also abundant salmon running in the rivers. So many salmon, some streams were red with them.
I’d like to take that mountain biker on Galena Summit back with me to that time period, when Idaho skies were blue, mountains were green, and the rivers ran red. All the colors sharp and true.
Diana Hooley lives in Indian Cove, south of Mountain Home.