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The Western Fires, Climate Change and Emphysema

August 26, 2018

Smoke from Western forest fires polluting the air around Ft. Collins. Photo taken from Horse Tooth Reservoir above the city, looking out east. August 24, 2018

 

1.

For our 43rd anniversary, Nancy and I spent three days in, of all places, Ft. Collins, Colorado. Usually this time of year we head for the hills, high up in the Rockies and spend at least a part of our time mushrooming hunting or hiking.

We decided against it this year, mostly on account of the forest fires that have ravaged the state – and the West in general this late spring and summer.

It’s been going on all summer. Here’s an article from more than three weeks ago, August 2, 2018, “That Smoke You See In Colorado Is From California Wildfires.” The article added that “The smoke from that fire and others burning in Oregon, Nevada and Utah, as well as some small local fires here in Colorado, is impacting air quality and visibility and is expected to continue this way through the rest of Thursday afternoon and evening.”

Now we are three weeks later and the smoke is still here, permeating the environment. I can smell it most days, including today.

There were some days that from our neighborhood in NW Denver, one cannot see the mountains although the fires producing the particle pollution are more than 1300 miles to the west. Have been told similar reports of wildfire smoke in northern New Mexico and way out on the Colorado high plains near Julesberg. An old friend living in Northern California related how last year’s

We did not escape the smoke in Ft. Collins either and it cut into our activities some. It was visible as we hiked up Greyrock Mountain (just west of town) and from Horse Tooth Reservoir which sits just about the city to the west. I was ok hiking there until the trail suddenly climbed steeply at which point breathing became difficult. Didn’t seem to effect Nancy as it did me, but we stopped and turned back. At Horse Tooth (see the photo above) the smoke was so bad, we didn’t even venture to hike, although some people did.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s website wildfire smoke is likely to intensify tomorrow in  the northwest area of the state (near Craig) with people warned to stay indoors. So it continues.

2.

He was sitting near the entrance of the main branch of the Ft. Collins Public Library, oxygen tank in hand. Thin, graying hair, but not that old, maybe in his late 50s or earl 60s. Pretty obvious that he had emphysema or some related condition. He was having trouble breathing and concentrating on that.

I sat down near him to read as Nancy went off to check her email. I asked if he was ok as he didn’t look ok at all. It struck me afterwards that as long as the library is open, he’ll be there, the only place he can find relief.

He related that his condition was badly aggravated by the western forest fires that had been raging for more than a month through out the west, spreading smoke and soot from the far west – California, Oregon, Washington state – as well as real terrors in Canadian British Columbia as well – that were the culprit, that got him.

The only place he could get some relief was in the air conditioned library, but even there, it was difficult. A handyman skilled at carpentry, plumbing and electrical work, is emphysema is not at Stage 4 like our dear friend Joe Grindon, but getting worse all the time, emphysema being an irreversible condition that sooner or later leads to death, the way it took another friend, Dick Ayre some years back.

Never got his name, but all I had to do was inquire as to his situation and he opened up. In classic form, y new Ft. Collins acquaintance blamed himself. His father had died of it and he knew it wasn’t good for him, but did it anyway and in construction, the line of work he did for 35 years, smoking was more the rule than the exception with carpenters feeling it was un-masculine to wear protective masks. “That’s all changed,” he said, but too late for him. Still there is a possible lung transplant. “I’m on the list, but don’t know if one will be available in time.”

3.

There have been many news reports about the Western wildfires, in Colorado and elsewhere. Very few of them mention the more deeper cause: climate changed induced global warming. One has to wonder whether there is some policy shared by all the major networks to avoid connecting these wildfires to global warming. Same goes for the newspapers, like the local, right-wing rag, the Denver Post. Most, but not all, of the folks we relate to understand the danger and are quite concerned for the future, but not everyone.

Denial is a powerful psychological mechanism. For some it’s about narrow self-interest – ie, the energy industry that new what was coming decades ago, the auto industry, the Defense Dept. For others there are ideological, religious blinders, whatever. Whatever, all the evidence – the scientific evidence – points to a very strong conclusion: Global warming makes wildfires more likely and more destructive. Global warming produces more intense droughts, hotter weather and earlier snowmelts. This results in less water in the late summer and early fall. As Joseph Romm notes (Climate Change: What Everyone Needs To Know):

That means wildfires are a dangerous amplifying feedback, whereby global warming causes more wildfires, which release carbon dioxide, thereby accelerating global warming

Amplifying feedbacks are “forcing events” (external events that drive climate change) that intensify or multiply global warming consequences. Or put another way, there is a snowballing effect that takes place as more CO2 enters the atmosphere that is not re-absorbed out of it.

More than a decade ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged the danger that wild fires present to global warming. I quote again from Romm (p. 46)

A warming climate encourages wildfires through a longer summer period that dries fuels, promoting easier ignition and faster speed. Westerling et. al (2006) found that, in the last three decades, the wildfire season in the western U.S. has increased b 78 days, and burn duration of fires >1000 ha (hectares) have increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days, in response to a spring-summer warming of 0.87 degrees (Celsius). Earlier spring snowmelt ha led to longer growing seasons and drought, especially at higher elevations…

That study was done thirteen years ago. If anything, the situation has seriously deteriorated, not just the U.S. western states but throughout the northern hemisphere. This has been a particularly devastating summer:

Even now, late in the wildfire season there are more than 120 fires ablaze in western states and western Canada. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there are currently 112 major fires to contend with. Here is the breakdown by state.

Alaska (17)
Arizona (9)
California (8)
Colorado (10)
Idaho (13)
Minnesota (1)
Montana (16)
Nevada (5)
New Mexico (2)
Oregon (12)
South Dakota (1)
Utah (4)
Washington (14)
Wyoming (1)

2018- 08 - 23 - Grayrock Mountain - 1a

Wildfire damage near Greyrock Mountain on Highway 14 just west of Ft. Collins from a major wildfire in 2012

 

 

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    August 26, 2018 3:29 pm

    I have a friend who is a Fireman in Northern Colorado and he says that someday, probably not far from now, Colorado will have wildfires so bad in the front range because of all the dead wood, that it will be a Katrina like event. That is what we have to look forward to.

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