This morning I am sitting in my living room, looking out my window to what can only be described as a toxic haze. The Air Quality Index that measures PM2.5 (particles that are big enough to negatively impact your lungs) is at 179 in Moscow, Idaho, right now. That is in the unhealthy range, and will be putting a damper on my plans to work outside in the yard today. More important to me, however, it means my 4-month old twin sons won't be going outside at all. Infants are particularly sensitive to smoke because their lungs are still developing, so today our windows will stay closed, and our daily walk is cancelled.
One of the challenges to wildfire acceptance is smoke. We have a natural aversion to smoke; understandably, our lungs suggest to our brains that we probably shouldn't breathe the toxic mix that includes carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulates. Public support for allowing some wildfires to burn naturally goes right out the window when it results in their own communities being socked in. If we had our way, we would never have to experience smoky air, except when roasting marshmallows around a campfire.
Unfortunately, smoke is a reality of living in western states. Much of the western US is covered by flammable vegetation in the form of forests and shrublands; this same vegetation is what many of us love about living in the West. We also experience dry summers, as climatologically, most of our precipitation comes during the winter months. This combination of vegetation and dry weather makes the West susceptible to wildfire every year, but some years are much worse than others due to even hotter and drier conditions, including long-term drought. The final ingredient for fire, of course, is ignition, and we have plenty of ignitions in the West due to dry lightning thunderstorms that pass through regularly in the summer.
Wildfire has occurred in the Western US for much longer than humans have been recording it; it has shaped this landscape over the millenia. Despite our very best efforts over the last century to try and stop it from spreading, wildfires continue to do exactly what they have always done: burn any fuel in their path. This includes the vegetation that has always burned, but now it also includes our homes and the infrastructure that supports modern civilization. All of this burning produces an enormous quantity of smoke and poor air quality, which is one of the primary reasons we fight fires (along with protecting homes and resources, of course).
Not ever seeing smoke is simply not an option. We cannot stop wildfires in the West; the last century of trying to do so has taught us it is impossible, and very, very expensive to keep trying. The question for all of us who live in the West is not whether we want smoke at all, but, rather, how do we want it? During wildfire season, we have no control over when smoke occurs and how much of it it produced. If many large wildfires are burning throughout a region simultaneously, and a high pressure ridge sets up (as often happens during summer in the temperate latitudes), we could have heavy smoke and poor air quality for days or even weeks on end. We wait impatiently for a storm to come in and blow all the smoke out. We have no control over anything, and the people most sensitive smoke, including the elderly, children, asthmatics, and others, are sitting ducks, desperate for relief.
But what if there was an alternative? What if we could dictate when and how much smoke we would receive? Instead of getting it all at once during a particularly bad fire year (which is going to become more frequent according to the latest research and model projections), we could be getting our smoke in smaller doses, spread out across the year, and at lower PM2.5 and PM10 levels. We could plan for when the smoke will occur by not scheduling outdoor activities. The most sensitive lung owners could plan to get out of town when the smoke is forecast. Wouldn't that be great?
We already have that option. It's called Prescribed Fire. Federal and state land management agencies use prescribed fire to remove vegetation at times when fires won't rage out of control. They primarily set prescribed fires in spring and fall, when transitional weather patterns bring winds every few days that help clear smoke out quickly. They also notify the public in advance, so that those who are most affected by smoke can take precautions.
The public tends to dislike prescribed fire because they see it as intentional smoke. And remember, our bodies are averse to smoke. But we need to overcome this aversion and use our brains to recognize that the smoke that comes with prescribed fires is far preferable to the smoke that comes with wildfires. There's less of it, it's more controlled, and you can plan around it. The more prescribed fire smoke we are willing to put up with the less wildfire smoke we will have to deal with down the road.
Think of it this way: if I told you I would give you ten dollars per day for the next ten years (a total of $36,520 over the 10-year period), OR at some point in the next 10 years, on one day (which you won't know in advance), I will give you $36,520 dollars all at once, which option would you choose? Small increments you can plan on, or a lump sum you can't? That's the choice between prescribed fire and wildfire.
If you live in the West, you're going to get smoke. The question we need to grapple with is: how do you want it?
Crystal Kolden studies wildfire as a function of human and climatic influences. After starting her career as a wildland firefighter in northern California, she is now a professor of Pyrogeography at the University of Idaho.