Wildfires played an integral role in shaping the landscape of the West. Now, with climate change driving more frequent and intense wildfires, these fires and their far-traveling smoke are impacting our lives and livelihoods. Nearly the entire West (and much of the northern tier of the U.S.) is plagued by wildfire smoke right now.

This is all occurring in the middle of a global pandemic, one in which we’ve been advised to social distance and avoid indoor spaces. So, what are we to do?

Protect Your Health

First things first – what can you do to protect your health? Avoid spending time outside and doing strenuous activity as much as you can. Even if you can’t smell it, the smoke outside is filled with very small particles called PM10 and PM2.5. Exposure to too much smoke can cause a variety of health effects, ranging from irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat to difficulties with breathing, heart inflammation, and exacerbation of existing conditions.

How big is PM2.5
PM2.5 and PM10 are fine particles generated by wildfires and combustion, which threaten public health.

But these aren’t the only pollutants we need to be worried about. We’re still in the heat of summer, a time when we also see the highest concentrations of ozone pollution. Ozone forms when sunlight interacts with pollution from vehicle exhaust. Elevated ozone and smoke pollution create a serious public health risk. This is why ICL’s climate work seeks to electrify transportation – so our vehicles aren’t adding pollution at times when pollution is already at dangerous levels.

Work Toward A Better Future

The intense wildfires burning across the West should be a wake-up call to our elected leaders. Climate change is here and impacting our lives today. Experts predict more wildfire, less snow, and increased drought frequencies in Idaho. We must adapt and build resilience to these predicted changes if we’re going to safeguard our health, economy, and natural resources.

Adapting to change is only part of the solution though. It’s vital that we also do our part and clean up Idaho’s sources of carbon pollution and promote agricultural practices that can sequester carbon.

These changes won’t happen if Idahoans don’t speak up and demand change. If your elected leaders don’t know how you feel about climate change, now is the time to call them!

Fight Fire with Fire

Preparing for more frequent and intense wildfires may require more fire. While many of the fires in California and Oregon are occurring in wet forests that burn infrequently (250-500 years), many of Idaho’s drier forest types present a different situation. Over the past century, land managers prioritized putting out fires immediately rather than letting them burn. The suppression of fire, especially in drier, lower-elevation forests, has allowed fuel to build up amplifying the threat of severe wildfires. This fuel buildup has occurred over hundreds of thousands of acres of forests across Idaho, and one of the best tools for preventing uncontrolled wildfire is prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire involves igniting a fire under safe conditions in order to remove excess fuel and promote forest health. Fire managers wait until conditions for a fire, such as soil moisture, temperature, and weather patterns for smoke dispersal, are ideal. Once started, conditions are carefully monitored to ensure it remains under control. In some areas, land managers don’t have the flexibility to apply controlled fires, and efforts to reduce fuels and restore natural disturbance regimes involve thinning projects, especially around communities.

The Idaho Dept. of Environmental Quality is in the process of creating rules for prescribed fire in Idaho, and ICL is a key stakeholder in that process. It’s important to note that prescribed fires can still produce smoke, but a little bit of smoke in the spring and fall, could prevent a lot of smoke in the summer.