June 12, 2023

wildfire smoke in the city

On Tuesday, I went for a little walk in the late afternoon, and noticed it felt really spooky; there was an orange-gray pallor to the world and it smelled...smoky? I took a few pics and then went back inside: 
*cityscape in the image was spookier than it appears* 

And, then we in NYC all discovered the wonders of wildfire smoke and what AQI means.  For the following two and a half days of high AQI, I had a headache, even though I hardly went outside. It was not a fun time, and made me recall an affecting article I read 2.5 years ago about wildfire and our changing climate reality:

An outstanding, eye-opening long-read that has persisted in my memory  

The article, written by M.R. O'Connor, contains first-person accounts of wildfire fighting that are thrilling to read and terrifying to fully imagine. Every time I read this piece I find my jaw dangling in awe.

Something that stayed with me in particular was learning how current wildfire management practices are contributing to and exasperating the problem of wildfires; how not only climate change is to blame here, but also a certain wrong-headedness along with bureaucratic risk aversion: 

The intensification of wildfires has been driven not just by the weather but by forestry practices. From the nineteen-thirties through the seventies, fire agencies enforced a “10 a.m. policy,” aiming to put out any new wildfire by midmorning the following day. Although the policy officially ended decades ago, its ethos remains pervasive. The U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior employ some fifteen thousand wildland firefighters, who are directed to prioritize fire suppression; as a result, ninety-eight per cent of all wildfires in America are extinguished before they become large. But preventing fuels from burning today preserves them to burn tomorrow. As the stockpile grows, fires burn longer and with greater ferocity. 

O'Connor shares what good forestry management would look like, and why it works: 
An estimated eighty per cent of North American vegetation is fire-dependent, and Bailey and others think that good fires are essential if prairies and forests are to become fire-resilient. Bailey argues for the establishment of a workforce dedicated not just to extinguishing fires in the summer but to setting them in the cooler months. 

To a large extent, good fire is an Indigenous movement. Leaders speak of their right, as stewards of the land, to practice “cultural burning.” “Fire is life for us. Fire is family,” Elizabeth Azzuz, a Yurok tribal member and the secretary of the Cultural Fire Management Council, said. “It’s a tool that we use to be able to restore our environment, our ecosystem, and maintain the strength and health of our people.”

You can pre-order M.R. O'Connor's upcoming book, Ignition, about "good fires", coming out in September. Based off of this snippet and the hellish week we had, I'm keen to hear more from her on the topic.

By Friday afternoon (three days after the smokiness started), our blue sky came back and I was ever so grateful: