Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

By David Adamson

The term “global warming” sounded benign when first introduced in the 1970’s, conjuring a fantasy in which the earth would gently transform to a pleasant 75 degrees F from pole to pole. Everywhere, life would be a beach.

However, climate change scientists warned it would not be like that. Left unchecked, in the long run global warming would create a lethal combination of deforestation, acidification, pollution, starvation, infection, radiation, eutrophication, desertification, and, ultimately, extinction.

David Adamson worked in high technology and health care. He’s the author of Walking the High Tech High Wire and The Wellness Club. He’s written hundreds of blogs on politics and fitness. Learn more about David...

Luckily, the projected timeframes were vague and distant, at least a few generations, leaving plenty of time for mankind to pull off a miracle with heroic technologies like carbon capture. No worries. In the meantime, recycle, keep car tires properly inflated, plant trees, eat fewer flatulent bovines, caulk the windows, install energy-efficient light bulbs, join the Sierra Club.

In the short run, though, adverse death events were inevitable. They would be more frequent, extreme, unpredictable, long-lasting, record-setting and destructive. The particulars would depend on variables such as the latitude and topology of where you lived.

Especially ominous was their prediction that the western US, where my family lived, was doomed to severe droughts, maybe not as dramatic as hurricanes and tornados, but equally concerning because they would lead to uncontrollable wildfires.

Our beaches were the high country. Over decades skiing, hiking and trail running up there, I had noticed subtle, yet unmistakable, changes underway. Snows fell later in the fall, melted earlier in the spring. More aspen were blighted, bogs dried up, wildflowers fewer, trails dustier, streamflows weaker, reservoirs lower. Not everywhere in every year, but in more places, more years.

A large part of Oregon was engulfed in wild fires in the summer of 2017, as shown in the areas highlighted in reds and pinks on this map.

In 2002 my wife and I lived in a mountain cabin, surrounded by forest. That summer a jilted wife started the largest wildfire in Colorado history. The Front Range trees were so dry that mountain dwellers were advised to have valuables packed and be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Also, we were instructed to create “defensible space” by removing trees within 50 feet of houses, like the trees right outside our windows where we enjoyed watching camp robbers, juncos and chickadees dart among the branches.

One afternoon, an ear-splitting crack and instant flash from lightening shook the windows. I grabbed a shovel and ambled down a steep slope to find a fire spreading in a tangle of fallen beetle-killed lodgepole at the edge of a clearing. I was frantically tamping flames when a forest service tanker truck came bouncing across the field. Four wildland firefighters, a team of several patrolling along mountain highways for just such events, jumped out, deployed a hose, and snuffed it.

From then on, fire and smoke entwined with our lives like sun, wind, rain, and snow. Global warming was no longer a threat unique to remote places life the Great Barrier Reef or Arctic.

A year later, my job took us across the Continental Divide to an area in western Colorado where occurred many of the worst fires in state history, including the deadliest – the South Canyon (aka Storm King) Fire in 1994, which killed 12 hot shots and two heli-crew. Storm King Mountain was just a few miles from where we lived. Each day driving to work, I passed the nondescript low ridge where the lightning ignited it. Several times I trekked up the steep, switch-backed trail to the blackened expanse where white crosses dot the mountainside, marking where each fire fighter perished in flames so hot rocks cracked.

When we drove out of Colorado in June 2012, two fires were burning nearby. As we drove along under smoke spread far into Utah from those fires, I felt a sense of relief. We were moving to Oregon to be closer to our family, and eagerly anticipated the lush green of the Pacific Northwest. Colorado seemed to be drying out and burning up. In short span of time between Storm King and the day we departed, Colorado had endured 30 of the largest fires in its history.

View from their car as this article’s author and his wife passed by the fire on Santiam Pass in Oregon. Photo by Cynda Adamson.

As if arranged by the chamber of commerce, we rolled into Bend mid-morning in a light, refreshing rain. By afternoon the clouds broke and moved away, exposing the ragged, glaciered, volcanic peaks of the Cascades gleaming under a bluebird sky.

However, within a month of our arrival, fires burned across Oregon, too. Some were controlled burns, some caused by lightning. Most were unintentionally started by humans being careless with vehicles, machines, firearms, fireworks, cigarettes, and campfires.

Last summer set new records for fire in parts of the West. The frequency of fires was not unusual. But due to the extremely low humidity and high temperatures day after day, once a fire started, it seemed impossible to extinguish. Long-time Oregonians said they had never seen a fire season like it. But the danger with fires is not just the flames.

Due to our latitude and topology, smoke flowed in from Oregon fires, as well as those in British Columbia, Washington, and California. Instead of dissipating after a few days, the smoke pooled low and thickened. No more breath-taking views of the Cascades. The sun glowed dully behind strange hues of grey, brown, salmon, and orange. The rank smell of smoke was omnipresent, whether outside or in. Local TV broadcasts opened with fire reports and satellite images of smoke converging on the region.

At first the smoke was just a stinky annoyance, but after a couple weeks, it morphed into a serious health threat, bringing normal life to a halt across halt in the western two-thirds of Oregon. Air quality warnings vacillated between “Unhealthy” and “Very Unhealthy.” Wood smoke is heavy with toxic particulates and carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde. It burned our nasal passages, throats, and upper chests. Some friends had to seek medical attention. For those not well or older, prolonged exposure can be life-threatening, inducing asthma and heart irregularities.

As conditions worsened, health authorities warned everyone, including children, to remain indoors. All outdoor activities were canceled. Sidewalks and parks emptied. People wore N94 masks like you see in the most polluted cities in Asia.

A place for relief from the 2017 Oregon fires: Haystack Rock on the Oregon coast, a beautiful setting reminiscent of thoughts in the 1970s when people erroneously believed a new concept called “global warming” would bring about a milder and more enjoyable climate, resulting in, “Everywhere, life would be a beach.”

With no relief in sight, we longed to escape, even if only for a few days. We fled over Santiam Pass in a long 15 mph procession behind a pilot car that lead us through miles of fire. We passed groups of blackened firefighters, gulping water, sharpening chains saws, grabbing a few minutes of rest before going back onto the fire lines above. Tanker trucks inched along in the opposite lane, dousing flames approaching the highway.

Within a half hour after leaving that fire, we skirted another near Detroit Lake, a beautiful reservoir usually populated with boats, was almost hidden in the smoky murk. Descending into the Willamette Valley, we headed northwest for a couple hours through more smoke, hanging ghostlike between the rows in orchards and vineyards.

At last, as we neared the coast, the smoke vanished. We had driven hundreds of miles to the Pacific Ocean for a breath of fresh air. The rolling waves glistened under a clear, sunny, blue sky. The temperature was a pleasant 75 degrees. Life was a beach.

One thought on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s