Spencer Rendahl: Smoke Signals

Sep 10, 2018

I lived on Puget Sound in the seventies, where I saw only rain clouds for months. We celebrated in April when the sun broke through and Mt Rainier reappeared.

I’ve lived on the East Coast for several decades now, and whenever I go back to visit family, I greet Mt Rainier like an old friend. But on my last trip, I could see neither sun nor mountains.

We’d heard that smoke from western forest fires was bad, and my daughter had downloaded an app that gave fire location and status updates. But we were still surprised by the haze that surrounded us and blocked familiar sights. When we traveled through Portland, we couldn’t see Mt Hood.

Further south, as we drove toward the worst recorded fire in California history, the smoke thickened and visibility became less than a mile. We stopped at a rest area with a scenic overlook of the majestic fourteen thousand foot Mount Shasta that was entirely obscured by a wall of smoke.

Nearly two million acres in the western US burned this summer in fires across fourteen states, from Alaska to New Mexico. And according to a study from the US Forest Service and the University of Montana, the increasing summer temperatures and decreasing precipitation that fueled those fires was due to climate change – and not caused by “gross mismanagement” of forests, as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has claimed.

I saw numerous people wearing masks to protect their lungs from the smoke. At one point, the Air Quality Index was worse in Seattle than in Beijing. Breathing in that air was equivalent to smoking seven cigarettes per day.

On New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, weather observers detected smoke that had traveled 3,000 miles from those western fires. And last week a section of the interstate we traveled near Mount Shasta closed because a new fire had started nearby.

Author Sarah Vowell writes that her home state of Montana has gone from having four seasons to two: winter and wildfire. In a two week trip with no rain, we saw the sun through the smoke exactly twice.

I’d like to think this was a fluke, but I’m afraid it may be the new normal.