Smoky skies

After four days of smoky skies in South Dakota, we are back on the road. Yesterday was a hot and smoky drive. The warmest temperature we saw was 106 degrees as we drove by Billings, Montana. The forecast calls for temperatures to be about 10 degrees cooler today and that will be a relief for the folks who live here. The smoke, however, will continue and no one knows how long the unhealthy air will linger. The various maps of wildfires across the northwest show so many fires that it is hard to determine exactly where the biggest fires are located. The National Interagency Fire Center is reporting 63 large uncontained large fires in Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Additional large fires are burning in Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and Northwest Territories. And in Alaska, over 200,000 acres have been affected by wildfire this year. That is a lot of territory where large fires are burning and that means that there is a lot of smoke for any area downwind.

We expect that we will be experiencing heavy smoke until we get to the top of the Cascade Mountains in Western Washington sometime a couple of days from now. Yesterday we could barely see the Big Horn Mountains from Buffalo and Sheridan, Wyoming and the Crazy Mountains, a major feature of my home town, are completely obscured by smoke. The smoke really changes the amount of scenery we will see as we drive through the familiar country of Montana. We are used to spectacular vistas as we climb the high mountain passes and cross the continental divide, but we know that we’ll be looking out at smoky skies and we will be grateful for air conditioning and the air filters with which our truck is equipped. We took a short walk yesterday, but the air is too unhealthy for strenuous outdoor exercise.

The inconvenience we are experiencing is minor compared to the danger the firefighters are facing. Entire communities have already been consumed by fire and there are many people who have lost their homes to fire and many others whose homes are threatened.

This summer’s record-breaking hot weather across the northwest has been dominating the news in the region. People in the mountain west are not used to triple-digit weather. There are places where the overnight lows are higher than the usual daytime highs. Folks who have lived without air conditioning for generations are sweltering. And the smoke is exacerbating health conditions of many. The area of smoky skies is so large that most people simply can’t get away from it.

I am no expert, but from what I have been reading, hot summers and lots of wildfires are becoming the new norm as the effects of global warming continue to play out. It is difficult to connect any single weather incident to human-caused climate change, but the cumulative affect of so many fires shows the effects of our warming planet.

For now, there is little that we can do. We confess that we have contributed to the problem by choosing to take a long trip with our truck and camper and consume a large amount of fossil fuel along the way. The effect of any individual is tiny compared to the scale of the globe, but taken together we humans are contributing to many factors that have brought about the conditions we are experiencing.

As we drove yesterday, we thought of the many travelers we have seen who are taking once-in-a-lifetime vacations. They have planned and saved and prepared for a big trip to the west and they are unable to experience the natural beauty that we have taken for granted. This smoky drive over the mountains and divides is just one trip among many for us. We’ve seen blue skies and we know how Montana got its state slogan: Big Sky Country. We’ve seen the mountains when they are not shrouded in smoke and we know the grandeur of the vistas that are out there. But for those who are first time visitors to Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks or who are on their first trip across the mountain west, there is so much that they simply cannot see.

Hiking in the backcountry can be dangerous both because of the effects of breathing so much smoke and because of the unpredictability of where the next lightning strikes will fall and where the next big fire will break out.

At this point we are very lucky that our new home is on the other side of the Cascade mountains where there is much less smoke. The cool Pacific breezes will be welcome once we get there. Even though the area has experienced record temperatures already this summer, they are more moderate than the temperatures across much of the area we have traveled on our trip. Even though we know that the energy we are consuming is part of the problem, we are grateful for air conditioning to keep us comfortable.

Back in 1981, we bought a new car in Hettinger, North Dakota. The dealer tried hard to sell us a vehicle with air conditioning. We resisted, thinking that the number of days when we would need air conditioning would be few. North Dakota is winter country. We drove cars without air conditioning to the west coast on several trips. We looked forward to getting to the high country where daytime highs were in the 60s and 70s. I can remember a few hot drives across the high desert in eastern Oregon and Washington, but those consisted of a few uncomfortable hours followed by nights of sleep in places where it cooled down at night. Comparing those days with the current conditions we are aware of how much our world has changed.

As we drive we are mindful of the many people whose lives are far more disrupted by the smoke and fire than ours and we pray for the safety of firefighters and homeowners in the affected areas. We also know that we need to examine our own choices and make changes so that we can be part of seeking solutions to the climate crisis. We have plenty of reasons to work for change.

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