Sunday, December 5

The Pungent Smell of Hot Tar: Life in a Western US Hit by Wildfires and Heat Waves | Michelle nijhuis

ORn the first day of summer, I woke up to the acrid smell of hot tar. Even before my numb brain could name the source, my body tensed with anxiety: the wildfire season was on. Given deepening drought and record heat across most of the western United States, this year’s fire season is widely predicted to be among the worst in recent memory, which is saying something, because the year The past was grotesque.

More than 10.5 million acres burned across the region in 2020, the highest annual total since accurate records began nearly 40 years ago. At least 43 people died as a direct result of the flames, and researchers estimate that thousands more died from the effects of sustained smoke inhalation. Entire neighborhoods were razed and evacuations lasted for weeks, accelerating the spread of the coronavirus. In rural Washington state where I live, my neighbors and I were trapped inside for days by smoke so thick we could barely see across the street.

When I moved west to go to college 30 years ago, wildfires happened every summer, but each fire was a separate event. Small or large, close or distant, each was different, and the sight or smell of wildfire smoke was unusual enough to make it stand out. For me, at least, the security precautions were an afterthought – if I could find my passport and car keys I’d consider myself ready for the season.

But as climate change raises average temperatures and thins the mountain’s snow cover, wildfires have become larger and more numerous. The fire season has been prolonged and its consequences are compounded by decades of fire suppression and poor municipal planning. Large fires are now coalescing into megafires over 100,000 acres, and while each fire still has its own name and statistics, most of us experience the season as a prolonged burn. At its peak, smoke almost always comes from somewhere, often from several places; Most of the time, at least one family I know is under evacuation orders.

Over the years, my preparations for the fire season have gradually become more elaborate. During the years I lived on a fire-prone hillside in arid western Colorado, my passport and extra keys were linked by a hard drive and a messy pile of documents; my neighbors and kept a water cistern in the back of an old truck to use as an ad hoc fire truck. When my family moved north a few years ago, we expected to live in a somewhat less flammable climate and a somewhat safer place against fire. But as the summer smoke gets worse here too, we’ve started stockpiling air filters and box fans. This year, with dire forecasts in mind, I found myself staring at the pre-filled “emergency bags,” the ever-growing selection of expensive backpacks filled with first aid supplies, protein bars, and sealed bags of drinking water. I made comparisons of solar powered weather radios, carefully studying the reviews. I finally resisted retail therapy, but last weekend I purged the closets and piled up the necessities, preparing for a possible quick exit. And, as temperatures in the Pacific Northwest have soared to previously unimaginable heights and my 12-year-old son and I take refuge in our air-conditioned local library, I realized that wildfires are not the only disaster. climate of my family. could face.

In general, I am not prone to worry. I’m not particularly organized either. But my wildfire precautions are no longer performative, no longer just a hasty charm against bad luck. At some point during the past three decades, they became more like preparations for a trip, one whose departure date is uncertain and unavoidable. One of these years, my family is most likely among the evacuees. Like many before us, we will be packing our car, heading to safety, and waiting for news.

When officials speak of the need to adapt to climate change, they are often referring to technology: higher seawalls, more resistant crops, better emergency alert systems. But some adaptations are less visible and more personal. As the weather gets drier and warmer, the air worsens, and the risk of fire increases, all of us who live in the West are adapting as best we can, in small and large ways. Those of us lucky enough to get through the last fire season face the next one with a little more fear, a few more precautions, and a growing understanding that summer is not what it used to be.

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