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As the West Burns: Speaking Truth to Fire

Brian Moench

It is Tuesday afternoon, July 3. An enormous cloud of smoke has emerged behind my house, seeming to swallow the sky from about 20 miles away. My neighbors say that it looks like an atomic bomb has been dropped in the foothills of our beautiful mountains, the kind whose fallout drifted over Salt Lake City from the Nevada nuclear test site when I was a little boy.

An hour later I learn that the smoke is just another of the over 400 wildfires in Utah already this year, with over 100,000 acres burned. But in many respects it might as well have been an atomic bomb. The destructive power is terrifying, long lasting (there will even be some radiation release), and worst of all, there is a similar fear that this could be just a prelude to an apocalyptic end to sustainable life.

Just like last year much of the entire West is again smothered by smoke, tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, hundreds of homes have been lost, brave firefighters have died, others have been severely injured. And we’re just getting started.

The remaining snow pack in Colorado on June 1 was 2% of normal and most of the West is less than 50% of normal. The yearly fire related loss of forests, water shed, homes, property, wildlife habitat and tourism revenue is steadily increasing. Fire season in the West is 78 days longer than it was 25 years ago. Since 1986, we have experienced a fourfold increase in the number of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned. The average burn duration of large fires has increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days.

Referring to current raging wildfires, Princeton climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said last week, “What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like. It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster.” Up close it looked scary as hell.

Most Utah residents will probably be inhaling wildfire smoke until the fall, and not just this summer, but most summers from now on. In fact, summer may become an even worse air pollution season for Utah than our notorious winter temperature inversions because we will have both high ozone from hotter temperatures, and high particulate matter from wildfires. But this year will not likely become the new norm. Scientists increasingly warn it is just the opening act for even worse to come.

There is a growing body of evidence that wildfire and wood smoke is actually much more toxic and more easily inhaled than typical urban smog, even more toxic than cigarette smoke. Most of the particles are so small they can enter any home through cracks around windows and doors.

The mercury that is launched into the atmosphere by coal burning power plants becomes deposited ubiquitously on trees and vegetation worldwide. Similarly, radioactivity still contaminates the Western landscape from 50 years of nuclear testing in Nevada. Wildfires and dust storms can resuspend some of that mercury and radioactive isotopes, releasing secondary waves of deadly exposure, adding to the toxicity of wildfire smoke for both humans and animals.

In most years over 80% of forest fires are caused by humans; more specifically, by a small number of idiots, and occasionally a psychopath (A volunteer firefighter started six of our fires this year). But the idiocy isn't limited to those clueless or careless enough to go target shooting, set off fireworks or light campfires in dry grass with 40 mph winds and 100 temperatures. An abundance of idiocy also is found in the Utah Legislature, that was recently excoriated by the Los Angeles Times, noting that Utah law "prevents state agencies from enacting any rule to restrict recreational shooting without the Legislature’s permission — even in areas at high risk for fires, even during a drought." No circumstances are extreme enough to diminish gun worship in the Utah legislature. The freedom to shoot whenever, wherever, and whatever pays off with even more freedoms, like the freedom to inhale wildfire smoke all summer.

Predictably, Gov. Herbert has pleaded for the public to use common sense while rejecting the same as Governor. He's called no special legislative session, no statewide moratorium on fireworks, or open target shooting or anything that might represent an appropriate response to the reality at hand. Congress has done their part to make matters worse by cutting funds for fire fighting and prevention by $512 million, but simultaneously maintained over $10 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies.

The climate crisis, triggered by greenhouse gases, has turned our landscape into kindling for these infernos. Settlement of the West has always been at the mercy of heat and drought but we are clearly entering a new climate chapter, staring at unprecedented ecological destruction.

At the state level, the Governor and the Legislature throw gasoline on the fires, almost literally, by enabling every means possible to frack, drill, scrape and burn every fossil fuel deposit in the state. At the national level, the fossil fuel cabal and their bought and paid for Congressmen, are holding the rest of the country hostage, while our homes go up in flames, our natural landscapes, water shed, and recreational areas are destroyed, our lungs are scarred and more and more of the ecosystems that sustain our lives are left in ruins.

The environmental meltdown currently playing out in the West evokes many of the images and thoughts of a nuclear holocaust. And most of the politicians who are doing nothing to stop it are the same ones who are outraged at the idea that man evolved from apes. I share their outrage. Apes would be smarter than this.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Brian Moench

Dr. Brian Moench is President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a practicing anesthesiologist in Salt Lake City. He is a former adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah.

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