Australia’s ‘Black Summer’ Fires Have Left a Shocking Effect on Earth’s Atmosphere

Bushfires south of Canberra on 31 January 2020. (John Moore/Getty Images)ENVIRONMENT


The scorching destruction of Australia’s Black Summer bushfires between 2019 and 2020 provided an ominous glimpse of fire’s reach in our hotter, dryer world, and the impact of the unprecedented inferno is still being measured.

Just weeks ago, scientists observed that the amount of smoke spewed from the blaze into the atmosphere rivaled that of a great volcanic eruption. Now, researchers say the giant smoke cloud was so immense, it measurably heated the stratosphere for months on end.

In a new study led by first author and climate modeler Pengfei Yu from China’s Jinan University, scientists simulated the plume’s emergence and evolution, showing the worst documented wildfires in Australian history left a lasting impact on the region’s skies.

“Extreme wildfires can inject smoke into the upper troposphere and even into the stratosphere under favorable meteorological conditions,” the researchers write in their paper. “The higher the smoke is injected, the longer it will persist and the wider its extent.”

In the case of the Black Summer fires, the flames sent almost a trillion grams (approximately 0.9 teragrams) of smoke particles up into the stratosphere, which the researchers explain is the largest amount ever documented in the satellite era.

This smoke mass was made up of different kinds of smoke particles, including both organic carbon (OC, which includes brown carbon, aka BrC), and black carbon (BC).

Each of these have different heat-trapping effects in the atmosphere, with BC being the most heat-trapping, due to the way it warms surrounding air after absorbing sunlight.

According to the researchers’ calculations, the Black Summer plume was composed of about 2.5 percent black carbon, which helped provide a heating effect in the stratosphere that lasted the remainder of the year.

“Simulations suggest that the smoke remained in the stratosphere for all of 2020 and that it measurably warmed the stratosphere by about 1-2 K [Kelvin, equivalent here to 1-2 degrees Celsius] for more than six months,” the team explains.

“Our study highlights that record‐breaking wildfire smoke can cause persistent impacts to stratospheric dynamics and chemistry.”

In addition to warming the stratosphere, the researchers say the record-breaking smoke event would also have had a diminishing effect on ozone levels in the stratosphere, destroying ozone molecules in the mid-high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, and likely making the ozone hole bigger temporarily.

While the researchers acknowledge that observations of aerosols producing stratospheric warming have been made before, it’s the first time scientists have measured the phenomenon to such an extent as this, given the record-breaking output of the Black Summer fires.

The findings are reported in Geophysical Research Letters.

Global forest losses accelerated despite the pandemic, threatening world’s climate goals

March 31, 2021 at 1:47 pm Updated March 31, 2021 at 1:53 pm

A wildfire burns through part of the vast Pantanal wetlands in Mato Grosso state, Brazil, on Aug. 29, 2020. Tropical forests around the world were destroyed at an increasing rate in 2020 compared with the year before, despite a global pandemic which reduced demand for some commodities that have spurred deforestation in the past (Maria Magdalena Arrellaga / The New York Times)
A wildfire burns through part of the vast Pantanal wetlands in Mato Grosso state, Brazil, on Aug. 29, 2020. Tropical forests around the world were destroyed at an increasing rate in… More 

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The loss of forests critical to protecting wildlife and slowing climate change accelerated during 2020, despite a worldwide pandemic that otherwise led to a dramatic drop in greenhouse gas emissions, a global survey released Wednesday has found.

The Earth saw nearly 100,000 square miles of lost tree cover last year — an area roughly the size of Colorado — according to the satellite-based survey by Global Forest Watch. The change represents nearly 7% more trees lost than in 2019.

The vital, humid primary forests of the tropics, which store immense amounts of carbon, saw even greater devastation. More than 16,000 square miles of these forests vanished last year, a 12% increase, the survey found.

“It’s shocking to see forest loss increasing despite the COVID crisis and the restrictions in many areas of life,” Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London, said in an interview.

The shrinking of the world’s forests in 2020 had many causes, including massive wildfires in Russia, Australia and the United States, as well as droughts and insect infestation.

In the tropics, meanwhile, the key drivers were uncontrolled fires and the expansion of agriculture.ADVERTISINGSkip AdSkip Ad Ad

Brazil, which is home to much of the sprawling Amazon rainforest, saw the most tropical forest disappear, largely because of wildfires and the clearing of land, much of it illegally. The nation lost a swath of old-growth forest in 2020 larger than the state of Connecticut.

The findings suggest the world is headed in precisely the wrong direction if the goal is to rapidly reduce global carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. All those felled trees in primary tropical forests contributed the equivalent of 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, Global Forest Watch estimates.

“Every year, we ring the alarm bell, but we’re still losing forests at a rapid clip,” said Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, which launched Global Forest Watch, a collaboration with numerous partner organizations.

The new figures do not necessarily represent permanent deforestation, especially outside the tropics. Many of the areas that vanished in 2020, such as those lost to wildfires, are expected to grow back. Forested plots cut down in managed tree plantations are also not permanent losses.

Nevertheless, much of the destruction in the vital forests of the tropics stems from agricultural growth for crops like soy and cattle ranching, which is usually permanent. In Brazil, for instance, the new data details a troubling expansion within the infamous “arc of deforestation” in the southern Amazon.

From the perspective of the atmosphere, the erasure of forests has an immediate climate impact because carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, is released if the wood is burned or left to decompose. But the loss of trees also has longer-term implications, because even if vegetation returns, it may not absorb carbon as before. Some scientists fear that the warming climate, for instance, could transform certain Amazon regions into savanna, permanently lowering their carbon-storing potential.ADVERTISINGSkip Ad

In the Amazon and other parts of Brazil, wildfires don’t generally occur naturally, at least not on a large scale. They often occur when humans light blazes to clear land but then cannot control them. In Brazil’s enormous western wetland region known as the Pantanal, out-of-control fires consumed a staggering 30% of the peat-rich land in 2020, triggering intensive carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

“You don’t get the ignitions without the humans,” Deborah Lawrence, a professor at the University of Virginia who studies the links between tropical deforestation and climate change, said in an interview.

Yet there is also concern that a warming planet is changing forests in a way that worsens blazes, and that might account for some of the extreme fires that have recently ravaged Russia, Australia and parts of the United States.

“The increase in fire and disturbances is the part that’s much harder to control,” said Richard Houghton, an expert on forest losses at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts. “So if that’s going up, that’s no good.”

Still, there are glimmers of hope in Wednesday’s numbers, at least for some regions of the world.

Indonesia saw shocking emissions in 2015, for instance, as human-lit fires consumed drained peatlands, which store gigantic amounts of carbon. Since then, however, government policies have helped curb emissions and better protect the nation’s forests, and the country has seen a steady decline in tree-cover losses for a fourth straight year.ADVERTISINGSkip AdSkip Ad Ad

By contrast, Brazil saw high levels of forest loss in the mid-2000s, but an international soy moratorium and other corrective actions by officials there drove forest loss down for almost a decade. Now, the problem has surged back near the levels that caused such concern to begin with.

“What governments do matters,” said Lewis, an expert on tropical forests, adding that deforestation is not inevitable and depends greatly on public policy. “Countries could get hold of deforestation rates and drive them down. It’s possible. It’s within our grasp.”

Congo, which houses the majority of the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, also showed the second-highest level of forest losses in the tropics during 2020. Losses there have risen steadily for a decade, driven by small-scale local clearing of land for agriculture and firewood. Scientists fear the potential forest losses in the vast Congo basin have only begun.

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This is all happening as the world is supposed to be using its forests as a key weapon in the fight to slow the Earth’s warming. If forests continue to shrink, so does the chance to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to preindustrial levels — that’s the point beyond which scientists warn of increasingly profound environmental damage.

“It’s a critical part of keeping temperatures below 1.5 C,” Lewis said. “Restoring tropical forests is one of the most efficient ways of removing carbon dioxide and slowing climate change.”

In a massive report published in 2019, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscored the vital role played by forests in helping to combat climate change.


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“Reducing deforestation and forest degradation lowers [greenhouse gas] emissions,” the authors wrote, noting that protecting forests could mitigate up to 5.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. “By providing long-term livelihoods for communities, sustainable forest management can reduce the extent of forest conversion to non-forest uses (e.g., cropland or settlements).”

Accomplishing that in a warming world with a growing population will require increasing the efficiency of food production on existing land, Lewis said. “The global footprint of agriculture needs to be limited to the land that’s already under agriculture,” he said, adding that means reducing food waste and shifting human diets to include less meat and dairy products.

The more forest that gets cut down or burned, the more the world loses its ability to have forests pull carbon from the atmosphere — not to mention the loss of old-growth trees that have locked away carbon for generations, Lawrence said.

“We cannot lose that stock,” said Lawrence, who refers to forests as a “carbon sequestering machine.” “If we don’t lose them, we still have to work really, really hard [to cut global emissions]. If we do lose them, I don’t think we can make it.”

Conversations about how to slow and avoid deforestation have been happening for a very long time among world leaders, but the problem persists. “And still, we are losing tropical forest,” she said. “And that is just sad.”

The most obvious solution would be to widely tax greenhouse gas pollution, she said. “A price on carbon is essential,” she said.

Like other experts, Lawrence said it is difficult to overstate how hard it will be for the world to meet its climate targets without a huge assist from forests.

“It gives me a pit in my stomach, because I don’t think we can do it,” she said. That is, unless deforestation is brought under control. “The science says these forests are terribly important. I also love these forests, and I want to see them stay.”This story was originally published at

‘Active and dangerous scene’: Mount Rushmore closed, 400 homes evacuated as multiple wildfires spread in South Dakota

Elinor Aspegren and Michael Klinski, USA TODAY NETWORK  5 hrs ago

‘Active and dangerous scene’: Mount Rushmore closed, 400 homes evacuated as multiple wildfires spread in South Dakota (

Potent cold front crashes east across U.S., with plunging temperatures…A mule led hikers to its injured owner. Now it’s missing in an Estacada…

“Dangerous” wildfires have spread through the area just outside Mount Rushmore on Monday, closing the monument and neighborhoods in Rapid City, South Dakota, while fire crews battle threatening high winds.a group of sheep standing on top of a grass covered field: Firefighters create a trench with axes on a hillside near Westberry Trails on Monday. The fire forced several neighborhoods in the area to be evacuated.© Siandhara Bonnet / Rapid City Journal Firefighters create a trench with axes on a hillside near Westberry Trails on Monday. The fire forced several neighborhoods in the area to be evacuated.

One blaze, named the Schroeder Road fire, was estimated to be under 1,000 acres, incident commander Rob Powell said during a news conference Monday afternoon. At least 400 people have been evacuated, but no injuries have been reported. About 250 firefighters responded to fight the fire in 50 to 72 mph winds.

“This is a very active and dangerous scene, Law Enforcement requests that citizens stay out of the area, and use alternate routes,” a Pennington County Sheriff’s Office news release posted on Facebook said.

Two additional blazes were burning southwest of Rapid City, near Keystone, with one covering an estimated 75 acres and the other 20 acres, and led to road closures and the closure of Mount Rushmore, according to police.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said at a Monday afternoon press conference that the now fire is not threatening Mount Rushmore at this time.

She arrived in Rapid City Monday to “oversee the response efforts” to both fires. The cause of both fires is currently unknown. 

Noem said the Schroeder fire started on private property and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized federal funds for fighting the Schroeder fire.

“There has been losses and that is tragic for these families,” Noem said. “But the priority needs to be to keep people safe and getting these fires put out.”

Authorities said several outbuildings had been destroyed as well as two residences. 

The fires are burning timber with very high potential for spread due to elevated winds, according to the Rapid City Journal. High winds knocked out power for Black Hills residents, power company Black Hills Energy said on Twitter.

As of noon CT, winds shifted to the southeast as a cold front moved through, but gusts were expected to be up to 60 mph through the afternoon, National Weather Service meteorologist Katie Pojorlie said. Play VideoHow controlled fires have helped prevent mega-fires for centuriesClick to expand

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And with northwesterly winds expected to increase to 25 to 35 mph with gusts to 45 mph, the National Weather Service in Rapid City have extended a red flag warning through Tuesday for the region.

Contributing: The Associated Press.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: ‘Active and dangerous scene’: Mount Rushmore closed, 400 homes evacuated as multiple wildfires spread in South DakotaContinue Readi

Greenhouse gas emissions transforming the Arctic into ‘an entirely different climate’

Warmest temperatures since 1900 have all occurred within the past seven years, according to Noaa’s annual Arctic report card

Oliver Milman in New York @olliemilman

Tue 8 Dec 2020 13.44 ESTLast modified on Tue 8 Dec 2020 13.47 EST


Arctic sea ice shrank to its second lowest summer extent in the 42-year satellite record in 2020.
 Arctic sea ice shrank to its second lowest summer extent in the 42-year satellite record in 2020. Photograph: Natalie Thomas/Reuters up for the Guardian’s Green Light newsletter

The Arctic’s rapid transformation into a less frozen, hotter and biologically altered place has been further exacerbated by a year of wildfires, soaring temperatures and loss of ice, US scientists have reported.

The planet’s northern polar region recorded its second hottest 12-month period to September 2020, with the warmest temperatures since 1900 all now occurring within the past seven years, according to an annual Arctic report card issued by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa).

The Arctic is heating up at a rate around double that of the global average, due to the human-caused climate crisis.

Some places were abnormally hot in 2020, with parts of Siberia 9F (5C) above the long-term average in the first half of the year. In June, the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk reached 100.4°F, the hottest temperature ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle.

Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice shrank to its second lowest summer extent in the 42-year satellite record in 2020, with the loss of ice and surging ocean heat causing a burst of ocean plant growth and altered behavior of bowhead whales.

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On land, fierce wildfires tore through parts of the Arctic region while the melting of permafrost and retreat of ice is increasingly turning parts of the Arctic green with sprouting vegetation.

“It has been yet another year of breathtaking changes in the Arctic,” said Jennifer Francis, the senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. “Temperatures in Siberia have been off the charts most of the year, and the Arctic passages have been open for shipping much longer than any previous year.”

The vast Greenland ice sheet lost mass again in 2020, albeit at a slower rate than last year, the report card states.

The continual melting of the world’s glaciers is fueling sea level rise, threatening coastal cities with flooding. Scientists have been closely monitoring the ice sheet, as well as its equivalent in Antarctica, to ascertain how the huge changes under way will impact the environment.

A tumultuous year in the Arctic has seen the last fully intact ice shelf in Canada collapse after losing more than 40% of its area in just two days, while thawing permafrost caused a disastrous oil spill in Russia after a fuel tank collapsed.

‘We packed long underwear and never wore it’: Arctic scientists shocked at warming

 Read more

The latest scientific warning over the changing Arctic will provide further urgency to international climate talks to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement.

“The Arctic is transitioning from a predominantly frozen state into an entirely different climate, due to emissions of greenhouse gases,” said Laura Landrum, the associate scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research Climate and Global Dynamics Laboratory.

“If we do not bring emission rates down, Arctic climate will change so significantly that this year’s record low sea ice extents will look large and record warm temperatures will appear cool compared to what we will experience in the future.”

Zack Labe, a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University, said the Arctic is “yelling at us to pay attention”. He added: “Unless we slow global warming by systematically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, the chances of our first ‘ice-free’ Arctic summer will continue to increase. This rapid climate change in the Arctic will continue to have consequences for the entire Earth system.”

Out-of-control Bond fire forces residents to flee in southern California

Vehicles are pulled off to the side of the road as the Bond Fire, driven by high winds, approaches Santiago Canyon Road in California on Thursday.

Vehicles are pulled off to the side of the road as the Bond fire, driven by high winds, approaches Santiago Canyon Road in California on Thursday. Photograph: Leonard Ortiz/APAssociated PressThu 3 Dec 2020 10.49 EST


Powerful winds pushed flames through southern California canyons early on Thursday as an out-of-control wildfire burned near homes and forced residents to flee.

The blaze in Orange county’s Silverado Canyon began late Wednesday as a house fire and quickly spread to tinder-dry brush as wind gusts topped 70mph (113km/h). The Bond fire exploded in size throughout the night and as the sun came up, an enormous plume of smoke was visible for miles.

Firefighters struggled in steep terrain amid unpredictable Santa Ana winds that have raised fire danger for much of the region.

Capt Thanh Nguyen of Orange county fire authority said crews were scrambling to stay ahead of flames that jumped major roads.Advertisement

“We’ve seen the wind change also drastically, so that’s what we’re telling all our personnel to be aware of – that constantly changing wind,” he told CBS LA TV.

Evacuations were ordered for several canyon neighborhoods near the city of Lake Forest and residents of other nearby areas were told to be ready to get out. It was not immediately known how many people were affected or if any homes were damaged.

The Bond fire is burning near the same area of October’s Silverado Fire, which forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate.

The new blaze broke out as southern California utilities cut the power to tens of thousands of customers to avoid the threat of wildfires during the notorious Santa Anas.

Red flag warnings of extreme fire danger through Saturday were in place because of low humidity, bone-dry brush and the winds, which sweep down from the interior, the National Weather Service said.

Utilities in the populous region began cutting power on Wednesday to customers as a precaution to prevent gusts from blowing tree limbs into electrical equipment or knocking down power lines, which have sparked devastating wildfires in recent years.

Southern California Edison cut power to about 15,000 homes and businesses by late Wednesday night and was considering de-energizing lines serving about 271,000 customers in seven counties throughout the windy period, which could last into Saturday. It was one of the utility’s largest precautionary blackouts.

San Diego Gas & Electric pulled the plug on about 24,000 customers by Wednesday night with another 73,000 in the crosshairs. “We recognize losing power is disruptive, and we sincerely thank our customers for their patience and understanding,” the utility said.

A blaze on about 15 acres (6 hectares) in in San Diego county threatened about 200 homes and officials were working to evacuate them, said Capt Thomas Shoots with Cal Fire, California’s state firefighting agency.

Nearby apartments were under evacuation advisories. The fire reported late Wednesday had damaged some homes, KGTV reported.

California has already experienced its worst-ever year for wildfires. More than 6,500 sq miles (16,835 sq km) have been scorched, a total larger than the combined area of Connecticut and Rhode Island. At least 31 people have been killed and 10,500 homes and other structures damaged or destroyed.

The latest fire threat comes as much of California plunges deeper into drought. Virtually all of northern California is in severe or extreme drought while nearly all of southern California is abnormally dry or worse.

Firefighters hope for a break in the wind as 2 wildfires burn in California’s Orange County with little containment

Chris WoodyardUSA TODAY0:190:49

LOS ANGELES — Tens of thousands of residents in California’s Orange County remained under evacuation orders Tuesday as two wildfires continued to threaten upscale neighborhoods.

As morning came, the Silverado Fire had consumed 17 square miles with only 5% containment, prompting an expansion of the evacuation orders to include sections of Mission Viejo, the Orange County Fire Authority reported.

About 70,000 Irvine residents were under evacuation order and another 6,000 in nearby Lake Forest. 

To the east, the Blue Ridge Fire has burned about 23¾ square miles with no containment as of Tuesday morning. Officials said more than 8,700 homes are under evacuation.

They include 5,958 in the Chino Hills, 2,500 in Yorba Linda and 276 in Brea. Ten Yorba Linda homes were damaged by the flames, but no structures had been reported lost in either of the two blazes.

About 1,000 firefighters were battling the Blue Ridge Fire and another 750 were on the lines of the Silverado Fire, OCFA reported. It was there that two firefighters on a hand crew were both critically burned Monday. Both suffered second- and third-degree burns on more than half of their bodies.

Hundreds of firefighters who defended homes overnight were hoping for a break from the capricious Santa Ana winds that blew up to 30 mph Monday, with gusts up to 70 mph on Monday. Winds were expected to drop to 10 mph with gusts up to 20 mph later in the day, the OCFA said.

A drop in the winds allowed the use of 14 retardant-dropping helicopters to resume after having been suspended Monday.

The Silverado Fire forced the evacuation of 60,000 Irvine residents.

Colorado wildfires:1 to 2 feet of snow helped contain the state’s largest-ever wildfires, but it may not be enough

Cause of the fires was under investigation, but the area’s major electric utility reported it could have been the cause of one of them.

Two lines may have touched, creating a spark that set off the Silverado Fire, Southern California Edison reported to regulators. At 6:45 a.m. Tuesday, it appeared a cable lashed to a telecommunications wire came into contact with a power line carrying 12,000 volts above it, said SCE spokesman Chris Abel.

The report came despite SCE being among the state’s utilities that are preemptively cut power to 38,000 users when high winds are forecast to try to prevent wildfires – and the potential liability for any damages they cause with them.

In Northern California, a series of small fires broke out Sunday night but were contained. The largest utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, cut power to 345,000 customers as a precaution, affecting about 1 million people, but it had restored almost half of it by Monday night as the threat tapered off.

Contributing: Associated Press

90,000 people told to evacuate because of wildfires in Southern California

By Amir VeraEric Levenson, Stella Chan and Cheri Mossburg, CNN

Updated 11:41 PM ET, Mon October 26, 2020

A firefighter uses a hose as the Silverado Fire approaches, near Irvine, California, on October 26, 2020.

California and southwest US under heightened fire risk 02:25

(CNN)A wildfire that nearly quadrupled in size Monday, prompted tens of thousands of people to evacuate and caused two firefighters to suffer critical injuries may have been started by a power company’s equipment.Southern California Edison said a power line may have played a role in the ignition of the Silverado Fire — which has burned 7,200 acres near Irvine — a report filed with California Public Utilities Commission shows.The initial safety incident report describes overhead electrical facilities in the area where authorities think the fire started, but notes there was no activity on the circuit.”We reported the incident despite seeing no activity on the nearby 12-kV circuit nor any downed power lines because it appears that a lashing wire attached to a telecommunications line may have contacted SCE’s power line above it, possibly starting the fire,” SCE spokesman Chris Abel told CNN.The fire grew to its present size in less than a day, sending families in Southern California communities into searches for the safety of friends’ homes, hotels or evacuation centers.Because of the blaze and the new, 3,000-acre Blue Ridge Fire, Orange County Officials told 90,000 people to evacuate.Fire officials said 700 people are battling the two fires, and on Monday two of them were critically injured.The men suffered second- and third-degree burns while battling the Silverado Fire near Irvine, Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy told reporters.Fennessy visited the injured firefighters in the emergency room, but was unable to talk with the firefighters, as each is intubated.”They were not in a position where they could speak with me,” Fennessy said. “Our firefighters are some of the bravest in the world. This is a very hazardous job.”The unidentified men, ages 26 and 31, are part of Orange County Fire Authority’s ground crew. The team uses hand tools to stop wildfire flames from progressing, much like hotshots.Dry conditions, low humidity and windy weather have prompted planned power shutoffs.There are nearly 320,000 customers without power this evening, according to PowerOutage.US.The bulk of the customers are managed by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for Northern California and Southern California Edison.

Flames and smoke force family to turnaround

Jesse Strickland and his family were among the tens of thousands to evacuate from the Silverado Fire and now his security camera might be the first clue to whether his house has damage.Strickland and his wife on Monday morning loaded up their two children and three pets into the SUV. As they drove away from their Irvine home, Strickland recorded the orange glow of the fire peeking through thick smoke about 1 mile from their home.Strickland was forced to turn around and honk his horn as he drove back the way he came to find another route, the video posted to Instagram shows.”We, fortunately, evacuated earlier this morning around 10ish. Took extra time to get on the freeway but was not too bad as they are now,” he said.The family along with their dog, chinchilla and bearded dragon are at a family friend’s house in Chino Hills.”So far so good,” he told CNN.He said the kids, a 12-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son are fine.”We are doing well. I think that we were well-prepared and didn’t overact in front of our children so they seem to be handling it fine,” Strickland said.Fire officials said Monday afternoon that no structures have been lost to the fire.

College cancels campus activities

The University of California, Irvine suspended all campus operations due to hazardous smoke and ash, university officials announced. Only essential employees — including those who work in housing and dining — should report to campus. All other employees were urged to stay or return home.The inferno began as a vegetation fire at about 6:47 a.m. local time Monday in the area of Santiago Canyon Road and Silverado Canyon Road, according to the city of Irvine.”The fire started in Silverado Canyon, and helicopters and fixed wing aircraft are on the way,” Mayor Christina Shea said in a news release. “The wind is making it move very quickly.”Videos posted by the authority show high winds whipping the flames into a frenzy in burned-out areas. said earlier the blaze was a “major fire” and was moving southwest at a quick pace.”Our priority right now is getting people evacuated and out of the path of the fire,” he said.Irvine listed six community centers where care and reception facilities were set up; as of Monday afternoon, three were listed as full.The Silverado Fire comes as the state and region are under major fire risks from hot, dry weather. More than 25 million people are under red flag warnings in California and the Southwest, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.Cal Fire said Monday that more than 4,000 firefighters are working to fully contain 22 large wildfires in the state in what has already been a historic fire season across the western US.

3 of the largest wildfires in Colorado history have occurred in 2020

Experts say climate change and a buildup of dead and parched wildland vegetation have contributed to this year’s fires in the West.

East Troublesome Fire in Colorado sends up huge smoke plume

OCT. 21, 202001:04Oct. 23, 2020, 8:49 AM PDTBy Minyvonne Burke

Colorado has seen three of its largest wildfires in state history occur this year, two of which are still growing.

The largest wildfire currently burning in the state is the Cameron Peak Fire, which has scorched more than 206,000 acres, according to the fire-reporting site InciWeb. As of Friday morning, it was 57 percent contained.

The blaze erupted on Aug. 13 and flared up recently due to warm and dry weather, prompting evacuation warnings for several areas. The cause of the fire is still being investigated.

Firefighters in the state have also been responding to the East Troublesome Fire, which has grown to more than 170,000 acres, now the second-largest in Colorado. It was only 5 percent contained as of Friday morning.

Image: Smoke fills the sky as the East Troublesome Fire burns outside Granby
Smoke fills the sky as the East Troublesome Fire burns outside Granby, Colo., on Oct. 22, 2020.Jim Urquhart / Reuters

On Thursday, Rocky Mountain National Park was closed to visitors after the East Troublesome fire jumped the Continental Divide and burned into the west side of the park.

The blaze led to mandatory evacuations Thursday in parts of Estes Park, a town of 6,000 in the Rocky Mountains. Residents in the small town of Grand Lake were ordered to leave Wednesday as the fire continued to burn.

There are some concerns that the two fires could merge into one, but East Troublesome Fire incident commander Noel Livingston said he does not see that happening right now.

“But it is a potential,” he said during a briefing Thursday, according to the Coloradoan. “And certainly this year has been one of those years where those low potential events seem to be happening with high frequency. A fire this size moving this far in October is a very low potential event in terms of what we expect and this occurred. So, I don’t want to say it can’t happen. But right now, it doesn’t appear that it’s going to.”


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The Pine Gulch fire, which was previously the largest wildfire in the state before being overtaken in size by the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, is the only major fire this year to be 100 percent contained. The blaze burned just over 139,000 acres before full containment on Sept. 24. The fire started on July 31.

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California is also experiencing an unprecedented wildfire season, with more than 4 million acres burned this year. The state is currently battling 19 wildfires, 12 of which remain major incidents, according to a Thursday update by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

Parts of Northern California remain under red flag warnings.

Over 450,000 acres are currently burning in Colorado, according to the Coloradoan. Experts have said that climate change and a buildup of dead and parched wildland vegetation have contributed to this year’s fires in the West.

In A Heating-Up West, Must Business-As-Usual Conservation Be Interrupted?


A firefighter strolls through the aftermath of a burn. Photo courtesy US Dept. of Defense
A firefighter strolls through the aftermath of a burn. Photo courtesy US Dept. of Defense

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this column, Lance Olsen reviews reasons to accept that we can’t restore ecosystems to what they were, can’t keep them as they are, and that heresy may be our best path to hope.

                                                           By Lance Olsen
Throughout many decades, many in the forest and wildlife conservation communities have organized around concerns about the adverse effects of business-as-usual in the logging industry.
For many, grappling with these concerns has also become business-as-usual in the conservation community. Alas, business-as-usual conservation is increasingly unlikely to meet its goals.
I’ve long sympathized with conservationists’ business-as-usual concerns about logging, and still do. After all, they’ve been all-too-frequently justified, and all-too-frequently still are. There’s still good and necessary work to be done in this context. I stand by the men and women doing that work.
That said, along with these continuing concerns, I’ve increasingly come around to a view that forests and wildlife are now far less threatened by logging than by the consequences of our fossil-fuel economy. This may nowhere be more true than the dry interior western United States.

In this part of the world, there’s been increasing evidence that rising levels of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, will yield heat and drought enough to transform this semi-arid region’s forests. The options include transformation to a less dense, savanna-like forest of the same species, or to a “novel” forest composed of species unlike the familiar forest of today, or even to a landscape without trees.

The stakes are high, will only be getting higher as temperatures climb higher, and the risks extend well beyond rare and already-threatened plants and animals. Given the deep evidence I’ll consider here, we are all being forced to reconsider the future of even common, widespread species such as lodgepole pine and the mule deer.
As the West goes dry
A new book, Climate Change and Rocky Mountain Ecosystems, 2018, J.E. Halofsky, D.L. Peterson (eds.), brings some useful perspective for evaluating the new situation. More specifically for the region from Yellowstone to Glacier National Parks, Chapter Five of the new book, Effects of Climate Change on Forest Vegetation in the Northern Rockies needs special mention.
The very first sentence of Chapter Five’s abstract lays out the critical changes in clear terms. “Increasing air temperature, through its influence on soil moisture, is expected to cause gradual changes in the abundance and distribution of tree, shrub, and grass species throughout the Northern Rockies, with drought tolerant species becoming more competitive.”
This one sentence says a mouthful. Its described path from heat to drought takes us straight into the realm where drought tolerance will be critical to hope for the survival of grasses, shrubs, trees — and animal life associated with them.
Haunting, an evergreen forest in Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin has been turned to dead snags by geothermal heat. Might this become a widespread aesthetic in Greater Yellowstone as drought and higher temperatures eliminates forests evolved for the cold and what does it mean for the species specially adapted to them? Photo courtesy NPS
Haunting, an evergreen forest in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin has been turned to dead snags by geothermal heat. Might this become a widespread aesthetic in Greater Yellowstone as drought and higher temperatures eliminates forests evolved for the cold and what does it mean for the species specially adapted to them? Photo courtesy NPS
The Nevada Department of Wildlife, for example, has found that, “Droughts are especially difficult on mule deer and their associated habitats,” and that “ the impacts of drought on Nevada’s mule deer have been significant.
Obviously enough, drought does no favors for any wild species, in any part of the world. Elephants, leopards, tigers are known to take hits from drought.

Periodic drought has long been bad news to life on earth. The worse news is that we can expect more of it, including its expansion across a wider expanse of the land base.

Periodic drought has long been bad news to life on earth. The worse news is that we can expect more of it, including its expansion across a wider expanse of the land base. For example, in 2006, the Journal of Hydrometeorology published findings that “ … the proportion of the land surface in extreme drought is predicted to increase from 1 percent for the present day to 30 percent by the end of the 21st century.”
This modeled expectation of expanding droughty areas has been variously confirmed by observed real-world trends since then. For example, a 2018 study found that the drylands of the interior western US have expanded eastward, and by140 miles.
This is gritty stuff, and not without implications. In fact, drought predicts the health and death of animals, first through its direct effect on the productivity and quality of animal habitat, with a subsequent indirect bottom-up effect on animals’ physical health and risk of mortality. In drought, food can be very scarce, which forces animals to sprawl out more widely in search for a bite to eat, only to get in trouble when their sprawl collides head-on with a sprawling human condition. In this collision, animals including bears can die as the ecosystem wilts.

For the conservation community, the take-home message is that conservation strategy that doesn’t account for drought is conservation with its head in the sand. The recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem seems a prime example.

For the conservation community, the take-home message is that conservation strategy that doesn’t account for drought is conservation with its head in the sand. The recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem seems a prime example. I ran a search of the 300-plus page document for drought, and got no results. Zero. Evidently, the d-word is too explosive for this government to mention even in some passing reference.
As the West heats up
Just as wildlife and forest conservationists can’t duck drought, we can’t avoid the reality that we’ve already passed through some important thresholds of heat, and that ecosystems will be taking hits from more and more of it.
Heat has consequences for species and ecosystems. By 2002, an article in Nature reported that, “Although we are only at an early stage in the projected trends of global warming, ecological responses to recent climate change are already clearly visible”
By 2004, Global Environmental Change could publish findings that, ”Between 1C and 2C increases in global mean temperatures most species, ecosystems and landscapes will be impacted and adaptive capacity will become limited.”
By 2006, it was already too late to halt the heat at .06C above the pre-fossil fuel era. In that year, biologist Camille Parmesan’s review of over 800 reports focused exclusively on wild species and ecosystems found that a third of species had already felt the effects of “recent, relatively mild climate change (global average warming of 0.6 C).”
Within a few years, it was already too late to halt the heat at 0.7C, and then too late to halt it at 0.85C. As of 2018, it’s already too late to halt the heat at a little over 1C, and it’s not going to stop climbing. Instead, species and ecosystems are likely to take hits from increasing heat for at least the next 30 years.
The Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, a document forged by the federal government and the states, is supposed to guide grizzly bear management forward into the future. And yet the document, at best, pays lip service to the largest landscape-level force already affecting the ecosystem—climate change. Olsen notes that transformation of habitat is certain to send bears ranging more widely and coming into conflict with people which could cause higher mortality. By not acknowledging this, he says, the agencies are being remiss. Photo courtesy NPS/Eric Johnston
The Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, a document forged by the federal government and the states, is supposed to guide grizzly bear management forward into the future. And yet the document, at best, pays lip service to the largest landscape-level force already affecting the ecosystem—climate change. Olsen notes that transformation of habitat is certain to send bears ranging more widely and coming into conflict with people which could cause higher mortality. By not acknowledging this, he says, the agencies are being remiss. Photo courtesy NPS/Eric Johnston
By 2016, an article in Earth’s Future reported that “… the historically hottest summers would become the norm for more than half of the world’s population within 20 years.”
In 2017, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Association published findings that the record-breaking heat of  2015  “will be the new normal by 2040.”
Since then, the assorted sciences gathered under the banner of climate science have reported that it will be extremely difficult to halt the heat at 2C, let alone 1.5. And in May, 2018, an article in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences cited evidence that, if the world economy continues on it’s business-as-usual dependency on burning fossil fuels, we’re on course to the 4C scenario.
That study was no outlier, no weird departure from the rest of reports on a future of increasing heat. In 2017, scientists describing their work were saying, ”Our study indicates that if emissions follow a commonly used business-as-usual scenario, there is a 93 percent chance that global warming will exceed 4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.”
If we let it our carbon dumping force heat to 4C, very much is very, very screwed.
In September of 2017, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed Clive Hamilton, an experienced observer of climate science. According to Hamilton, ”No one wanted to pay attention to the implications of a world four degrees warmer… Then a few scientists said let’s have a conference and actually talk about it. …. It was then that I would buttonhole a couple of scientists and say: ‘Well, you know we’re speculating about this. But what do you really think is the situation?’ And one of them just looked at me and said: ‘We’re f–ked.'”
As more and more people begin to get their heads around the urgency of our climate crisis, the odds of avoiding 4C will likely improve. The bottom line here is that saving forests and wildlife requires — yes, requires — actual effort aimed at saving the atmosphere.
This new responsibility for conservation would keep wild habitats and species out of the fire but, sad to say, it won’t keep them out the frying pan. Even if the world does halt the heat short of 4C, a lot will remain at risk at 3, or even 2.
As with drought, conservation strategy that doesn’t account for heat is conservation with its head in the sand. Alas, again, the recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy is a prime example. Again, in running a search of its 300-plus pages, I found only three pages that make reference to temperature, and those few references left a lot unsaid about the risk grizzlies will be facing in an increasingly hotter world.
Some conservationist are beginning to shift gears
Noting that “Climate Change may undermine the effectiveness of current efforts to conserve wildlife and ecosystems,” a 2018 Wildlife Conservation Society report cites “examples of how conservationists are strategically altering their approaches to keep pace with climate change.”
WCS biologists say “our hope is that this report will help conservationists learn how to move beyond business-as-usual conservation approaches and make their work climate informed.”
They spell out a basic necessity for moving beyond business-as-usual conservation. “The first step is to consult the latest science on observed and projected climate impacts.”
The need for conservationists to get ready for change was identified three years earlier, in 2015. Writing for Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Paul R. Arnsworth  et al asked “Are conservation organizations configured for effective adaptation to global change? They opened their discussion by saying, “Conservation organizations must adapt to respond to the ecological impacts of global change.”

“They opened their discussion by saying, ‘Conservation organizations must adapt to respond to the ecological impacts of global change.'”

Amen to that. Global warming’s effect on climate is and for a long time will be forcing increasingly extensive change not just on trees but also on soils, grasses, shrubs, and the lives of wild animals.
These changes are and will be adding up to impact far in excess of anything logging could do in its wildest dreams of deregulation and subsidy. There is plausibly no better illustration of this sobering reality than in Figure 5 and Table 1 of Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk (see below).
Where’s the hope? 
There’s serious potential of heartbreak, despair and even a sinking feeling of hopelessness for conservationists who’ve devoted a career to saving familiar forests and wildlife from the excesses of logging, only to come face-to-face with losing them to the excesses of a fossil fuels economy. In a conversation with a wildlife biologist about this, he said if we level with people about the dangers of the climate situation, they’ll see it as a hopeless cause, throw their arms up in despair and walk away.
That’s a real risk. But there it is, and the bitterest pill takes form in the scenario of losses it’s already too late to stop, because of future heat that’s coming down the pipeline in the next few decades. When hotter and drier conditions are already forcing change on Rocky Mountain forests at only 1 Celsius above the fossil fuels era, there’s increasingly little reason to expect that upping the heat to 2 or 3C won’t endanger a lot of what we love.
Have a look at the graphic that speaks to forest cover outlook again, above. Among other things, that graphic illustrates the importance of latitude. For example, Glacier National Park is a higher latitude than Yellowstone, which raises hope that it will take less damaging hits to fir, pine, spruce — and the animal life associated with them.
Looked at another way, Yellowstone is at a higher latitude than points south, where the loss of familiar conifers is set to be even greater than for Yellowstone. IPCC’s 2007 report made that point pretty well. ”For widespread species such as lodgepole pine, a 3C temperature increase would increase growth in the northern part of its range, decrease growth in the middle, and decimate southern forests.”
One take-home message is relatively simple. As with real estate, hope for the the survival of species and systems is increasingly going to be partly a matter of location, location, location.
But there’s another, equally simple message that needs to be taken into account. Hope will also rest partly on traits of the species involved, and species differ in their tolerance for drought. This difference in species’ traits will be playing an increasingly decisive role in deciding the winners and losers that our fossil fuel economy and its creation of climate change will force on the Northern Rockies ecosystem
Many mountain forests could be transformed into savanna as they die or burn and conditions become too warm for "normal natural succession" to continue. It has consequences for many species. Photo courtesy BLM/Bob Wick
Many mountain forests could be transformed into savanna as they die or burn and conditions become too warm for “normal natural succession” to continue. It has consequences for many species. Photo courtesy BLM/Bob Wick
It’s worth repeating that key sentence that I referenced at the beginning: “Increasing air temperature, through its influence on soil moisture, is expected to cause gradual changes in the abundance and distribution of tree, shrub, and grass species throughout the Northern Rockies, with drought tolerant species becoming more competitive.”
This scenario carries a third simple message. Drought tolerant species might make it, but others will face higher risk of defeat — even with conservationists’ very best business-as-usual attempts to save them from logging.
This potentially discouraging scenario can be enough to thrust a conservation-minded individual — or group — into denial. Why? Psychoanalyst Rene Lertzman offers an answer. “Might we unconsciously deny what is staring us in the face because what is at stake is too painful to consider?” I think she’s onto something important with that question.

Psychoanalyst Rene Lertzman offers an answer. ‘Might we unconsciously deny what is staring us in the face because what is at stake is too painful to consider?'”

Alternatively, where denial yields to acceptance, the result doesn’t have to be enlightenment. Acceptance of painful new realities can, as my biologist friend worried, usher us into a feeling of hopelessness.
Barbara Betz wrote in the May 1968 issue of International Journal of Psychiatry, “Hopelessness is often derived from unfulfillable, rather than from merely unfulfilled, desires and wishes focused on impossible aims.” Anna Freud, the savvy psychologist daughter of famed father Sigmund Freud, put it succintly; In our dreams we can have our eggs cooked exactly how we want them, but we can’t eat them.
But our responses don’t need to end at hopelessness. In her 1968 article, Betz pointed out that the feeling of hopeless “diminishes with the development of capability to change aim.” She added the counterpart to hopelessness “is not just ‘hope’ but enthusiasm and zest.”
The time is now to change business-as-usual thinking
In his popular tune, The Gambler, Kenny Rogers says “Ya gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
The question of when shows up four times in that chorus, and it’s critical to the hopes we can hold in a world that favors the persistence of drought tolerant ecosystems — at the expense of ecosystems close to our hearts’ desires. Is it time to walk away from forests and wildlife we hold dear, and devote our time and efforts to species that have a chance in a hotter, drier Northern Rockies region?
In 2007, Nature published “What to let go,” by Emma Marris. “Triage,” Marris wrote, “is a dirty word in some conservation circles, but,” she reminds us, “conservationists have long had to make decisions about what to save.” Amen.
“As more and more admit it,” she adds, “open discussion about how the decisions are best made — by concentrating on particular species, or particular places, or absolute costs, or any other criterion — becomes possible.”
Given what we know about the importance of drought tolerance and latitude, Marris’ references to “particular species” and “particular places” seem particularly apropos.
“Whichever criteria come into play,” Marris reminds us, “one thing remains constant. The decisions have to be made quickly.”  I’d only add that these decisions should have been made years ago, but that normal human resistance to change has kept the brakes applied.
 Aiming for a forest of drought tolerant trees
Picking my way through the Montana State Nursery’s catalog, I found four trees specifically described as drought tolerant, one of them “very drought tolerant.” Juniper was one of them, and it’s a familiar tree on many dry sites.
Big toothed maple and prairie poplar, according to the state nursery, usually establish themselves along waterways but, once established, tolerate drought pretty well. These two trees may thus have some potential for persistence of riparian systems important to many plant and animal species.
The fourth tree was bur oak, and what the state nursery said about that tree got my attention more than any of the others. While the others are capable of providing shade that will be increasingly valuable to many species as heat firms its grip, and shade cast on streams could grant added value to the prairie poplar and big toothed maple, the bur oak was for me a standout.
The nursery describes bur oak as “very drought tolerant.” Equally striking, it describes characteristics recognized for the whitebark pine. Just as the  pine periodically casts off cones with nuts providing food for bird, squirrel, and bear, the oak periodically casts off acorns. Birds and small mammals pounce on his periodic plenty, and bears have been known to pull down bur oak branches to eat acorns directly from the tree when they and other beneficiaries have already gobbled up the goodies fallen on the ground.
Business-as-usual conservation in the Northern Rockies has long been organized around the familiar fir, spruce, and pine ecosystems. These are the systems we know and love and, for many, perpetuating these forest is the desired future. A forest of juniper, prairie poplar, big toothed maple and bur oak would clearly be a novel forest and, for some conservationists, a heresy.
And yet, for at least some others, including me, a novel forest would just as clearly be preferable to no forest at all. Getting from here to there will plainly require departure from business as usual.
Given the latitude of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the national forests around the Park seem a reasonable enough place to start, so I’ve been pestering the Custer-Gallatin Forest to at least start thinking and talking out loud about it.
This will require a shift from the Forest Service business-as-usual approach of managing for ecosystems’ desired future conditions. The need for this shift was strongly underscored in no less a journal than Forest Ecology and Management. An article there by S.W. Golladay et al makes a forceful case for shifting our aims away desired future conditions, and aiming instead for achievable future conditions.
“We contend that traditional approaches to forest conservation and management will be inadequate given the predicted scale of social-economic and biophysical changes in the 21st century. New approaches … are urgently needed …,” they wrote. “These approaches acknowledge that change is inevitable and sometimes irreversible, and that maintenance of ecosystem services depends in part on novel ecosystems, i.e., species combinations with no analog in the past.”

Toxic Wildfire Haze Leaves Damage Long After It Clears

Seeley Lake, Montana — When researchers arrived in this town tucked in the Northern Rockies three years ago, they could still smell the smoke a day after it cleared from devastating wildfires. Their plan was to chart how long it took for people to recover from living for seven weeks surrounded by relentless smoke.

They still don’t know, because most residents haven’t recovered. In fact, they’ve gotten worse.

Forest fires had funneled hazardous air into Seeley Lake, a town of fewer than 2,000 people, for 49 days. The air quality was so bad that on some days the monitoring stations couldn’t measure the extent of the pollution. The intensity of the smoke and the length of time residents had been trapped in it were unprecedented, prompting county officials to issue their first evacuation orders due to smoke, not fire risk.

So far, researchers have found that people’s lung capacity declined in the first two years after the smoke cleared. Chris Migliaccio, an immunologist with the University of Montana, and his team found the percentage of residents whose lung function sank below normal thresholds more than doubled in the first year after the fire and remained low a year after that.

“There’s something wrong there,” Migliaccio said.

While it’s long been known that smoke can be dangerous when in the thick of it — triggering asthma attacks, cardiac arrests, hospitalizations and more — the Seeley Lake research confirmed what public health experts feared: Wildfire haze can have consequences long after it’s gone.

That doesn’t bode well for the 78 million people in the western United States now confronting historic wildfires.

Toxic air from fires has blanketed California and the Pacific Northwest for weeks now, causing some of the world’s worst air quality. California fires have burned roughly 2.3 million acres so far this year, and the wildfire season isn’t over yet. Oregon estimates 500,000 people in the state have been under a notice to either prepare to evacuate or leave. Smoke from the West Coast blazes has drifted as far away as Europe.

Extreme wildfires are predicted to become a regular occurrence due to climate change. And, as more people increasingly settle in fire-prone places, the risks increase. That’s shifted wildfires from being a perennial reality for rural mountain towns to becoming an annual threat for areas across the West.

Dr. Perry Hystad, an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, said the Seeley Lake research offers unique insights into wildfire smoke’s impact, which until recently had largely been unexplored. He said similar studies are likely to follow because of this fire season.

“This is the question that everybody is asking,” Hystad said. “‘I’ve been sitting in smoke for two weeks, how concerned should I be?’”

Migliaccio wants to know whether the lung damage he saw in Seeley Lake is reversible — or even treatable. (Think of an inhaler for asthma or other medication that prevents swollen airways.)

But those discoveries will have to wait. The team hasn’t been able to return to Seeley Lake this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Migliaccio said more research is needed on whether wildfire smoke damages organs besides the lungs, and whether routine exposure makes people more susceptible to diseases.

The combination of the fire season and the pandemic has spurred other questions as well, like whether heavy smoke exposure could lead to more COVID-19 deaths. A recent study showed a spike in influenza cases following major fire seasons.

“Now you have the combination of flu season and COVID and the wildfires,” Migliaccio said. “How are all these things going to interact come late fall or winter?”

A Case Study

Seeley Lake has long known smoke. It sits in a narrow valley between vast stretches of thick forests.

On a recent September day, Boyd Gossard stood on his back porch and pointed toward the mountains that were ablaze in 2017.

Gossard, 80, expects to have some summer days veiled in haze. But that year, he said, he could hardly see his neighbor’s house a few hundred feet away.

“I’ve seen a lot of smoke in my career,” said Gossard, who worked in timber management and served as a wildland firefighter. “But having to just live in it like this was very different. It got to you after a while.”

When Missoula County health officials urged people to leave town and flee the hazardous smoke, many residents stayed close to home. Some said their jobs wouldn’t let them leave. Others didn’t have a place to go — or the money to get there.

Health officials warned those who stayed to avoid exercising and breathing too hard, to remain inside and to follow steps to make their homes as smoke-free as possible. The health department also worked to get air filters to those who needed them most.

But when flames got too close, some people had to sleep outside in campsites on the other side of town.

Understanding the Science of Smoke

One of the known dangers of smoke is particulate matter. Smaller than the width of a human hair, it can bypass a body’s defenses, lodging deep into lungs. Lu Hu, an atmospheric chemist with the University of Montana, said air quality reports are based on how much of that pollution is in the air.

“It’s like lead; there’s no safe level, but still we have a safety measure for what’s allowable,” Hu said. “Some things kill you fast and some things kill you slowly.”

While air quality measurements can gauge the overall amount of pollution, they can’t assess which specific toxins people are inhaling. Hu is collaborating with other scientists to better predict how smoke travels and what pollutants people actually breathe.

He said smoke’s chemistry changes based on how far it travels and what’s burning, among other factors.

Over the past few years, teams of researchers drove trucks along fire lines to collect smoke samples. Other scientists boarded cargo planes and flew into smoke plumes to take samples right from a fire’s source. Still others stationed at a mountain lookout captured smoke drifting in from nearby fires. And ground-level machines at a Missoula site logged data over two summers.

Bob Yokelson, a longtime smoke researcher with the University of Montana, said scientists are getting closer to understanding its contents. And, he said, “it’s not all bad news.”

Temperature and sunlight can change some pollutants over time. Some dangerous particles seem to disappear. But others, such as ozone, can increase as smoke ages.

Yokelson said scientists are still a long way from determining a safe level of exposure to the 100-odd pollutants in smoke.

“We can complete the circle by measuring not only what’s in smoke, but measuring what’s happening to the people who breathe it,” Yokelson said. “That’s where the future of health research on smoke is going to go.”

Coping With Nowhere to Flee

In the meantime, those studying wildland smoke hope what they’ve learned so far can better prepare people to live in the haze when evacuation isn’t an option.

Joan Wollan, 82, was one of the Seeley Lake study participants. She stayed put during the 2017 fire because her house at the time sat on a border of the evacuation zone.

The air made her eyes burn and her husband cough. She ordered air filters to create cleaner air inside her home, which helped.

On a recent day, the air in Wollan’s new neighborhood in Missoula turned that familiar gray-orange as traces of fires from elsewhere appeared. Local health officials warned that western Montana could get hit by some of the worst air quality the state had seen since those 2017 fires.

If it got bad enough, Wollan said, she’d get the filters out of storage or look for a way to get to cleaner air — “if there is someplace in Montana that isn’t smoky.”