Haze filled skies: “the new normal?”
Katherine Pecora, Staff Writer
This summer has undoubtedly become the summer of smoke and wildfires all along the western coast of the North America. In Washington, gray skies are a constant for much of the year. This summer, the smoke has gripped much of the West Coast in a seemingly unprecedented way. As we hear more about climate change, we are forced to ask ourselves: Are smoke-filled summers the new normal?
“We expect to see more fires and bigger fires,” said Amy Snover, Director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. “People are just beginning to wake up to this, but public lands managers do think about this and the potential risks.” Increased summer heat is a key ingredient to prolonged summer fires. The Climate Impacts Group has predicted the 21st century will be warmer based on more than three dozen climate models with different projections. These fires create risks such as an increase of smoke in the air. This is potentially detrimental to children, the elderly and those with breathing and respiratory issues.
According to a 2016 article published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over the past century, most of the state has warmed one or two degrees fahrenheit higher than the average. “Glaciers are retreating, the snowpack is melting earlier in the year, and the flow of meltwater into streams during summer is declining. In the coming decades, coastal waters will become more acidic, streams will be warmer, populations of several fish species will decline, and wildfires may be more common.” The EPA has not published updated information for the State of Washington since.
On July 31, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed an emergency proclamation for all 39 counties, “to ensure the immediate response of firefighting resources to protect people, homes, businesses and the public and private property from threat of wildfires.” This proclamation allows for assistance from the Washington National Guard which often trains and certifies soldiers and airmen to fight the fires.
The regional wildfires negatively impacted the air quality so much during the summer months that five public health agencies joined in warning the public to be aware of the haze and the possible health risks associated with it. “The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA), alongside Kitsap Public Health District, King County and Seattle Public Health, Snohomish Health District, and the Tacoma Pierce County Health District, are predicting air quality to reach levels considered unhealthy for some vulnerable groups.”
Washington’s wildfire seasons have become longer and more detrimental than in past years. In the past decade, the state has failed to invest in the Department of Natural Resources. Investments in year-round staffing and equipment could help firefighters get ahead of small fires and hopefully minimize their damage in the future.