firebreakIt's All About the Smoke

By Lindsay Mohlere

We have all experienced days and weeks of thick, acrid wildfire smoke that descends on our communities during fire season. Small fires, big fires — the intensity of the smoke is hard to predict. Wind direction, jet-stream, and precipitation and such are enduring culprits enabling the invasion.

This past year’s record-setting firestorms and resulting smoke from the many major blazes in Oregon and California impacted the populations north of those borders with a thick, bitter pall for weeks on end. Washington got smothered, as did Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia. August and September were the ugliest, with smoke stuck like coastal fog in urban and rural areas with little or no relief for weeks.

What we know out West is as long as there is a fire season, we’ll have a smoke season too. It’s part of the gig. Where there’s fire, there’s smoke.

Getting to Know the Danger

According to a new study published in the March 2021 issue of Nature Communications, smoke from wildfires is as much as 10 times more hazardous to humans than similar pollution from other sources. Wildfires that charred millions of acres in the West also wiped out the country’s pandemic-related clean air gains in 2020.

Fine particle pollution from burning fossil fuels dropped 13 percent between March and July 2020 compared to the previous year and dipped again in November and December. This drop was attributed to pandemic restrictions that limited travel and other activities; however, the historic autumn wildfire season obliterated these gains.

Wildfire smoke is made up mainly of microscopic airborne particles known as PM2.5, which are 30 times smaller than a strand of hair. These microscopic particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, wreaking havoc on the human body. Those particles can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, tighten the chest, and cause difficulty breathing. In addition, the pollutants can trigger asthma attacks, strokes, and heart attacks.

Wildfire smoke is extremely dangerous to young children and the elderly, as well as people with chronic health conditions, and it increases the risk of hospitalization and death. Even healthy people are at risk.

Unfortunately, less is known about the long-term damage from fine-particle pollution in wildfire smoke; however, the research suggests it will impair your lungs long after the smoke clears, much like the after-effects of fine particle pollution caused by urban smog. A current study conducted in Montana reported that residents in a community that had been smothered by a blanket of wildfire smoke for more than 45 days in 2017 still had decreased lung function two years later.

Overall, the U.S. average for the deadliest type of air pollution rose nearly seven percent over 2019 levels because of the smoke from fires in California, Oregon, and Washington.

firebreakRadioactive Smoke in Your Backyard

Just so you know, in some places — like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) superfund sites — a seven percent increase in air pollution is a drop in the bucket.

Wildfires fueled by excessive fuel loads and climate change could potentially threaten toxic superfund sites, releasing toxins ranging from acid mine drainage to radioactive smoke. Superfund Operable Unit 3 of the EPA’s Libby Asbestos Site, located in the Kootenai National Forest about four miles east of Libby, Montana, is the site of one of America’s worst man-made environmental disasters.

The forest near Libby is a hazardous waste zone contaminated by Libby amphibole, a highly toxic mixture of asbestos fibers unleashed by the vermiculite mines that helped the town prosper for decades. Toxic asbestos dust from the former mines has killed hundreds of residents, sickening thousands more, and victims continue to surface.

The Libby Asbestos site is one of 234 Superfund sites across the nation that could be threatened by wildfire, and it presents a kind of worst-case scenario in which a wildfire could send asbestos-contaminated ash into nearby communities. Some experts worry a plume of smoke could carry the forest’s toxins hundreds of miles away.

Every year the threat increases with the boom of megafires like those that exploded across Colorado, California, Washington, and Oregon. Experts say it is only a matter of time before one of these blazes burns through a toxic site with dangerous consequences.

firebreakBoeing 747 Supertanker in flight.

Global Supertanker Update: Moses Lake Trying to Tackle Global Supertanker

Currently, the Colorado-based Global Supertanker is undergoing upgrades in Moses Lake, Washington, at the massive Grant County International Airport (a former U.S. Air Force base). AeroTEC, an aerospace testing, engineering, and certification company, is contracted to perform upgrades to the Boeing 747 Supertanker and convert the analog drop system into a digital version for more precision. 

Once the huge 747-400 touched down in Grant County, Washington State officials, the Port of Moses Lake, and other partners began efforts to keep the super-sized piece of artillery in the battle against wildfires stationed at Grant County International. The idea is to form a regional organization of northwest states and possibly British Columbia, with Moses Lake as the home base for the supertanker and other large firefighting aircraft and fly missions to wildfires from Wyoming to Alaska.

The deal hasn’t closed yet but stay tuned. It just might happen.

That’s a wrap.

Stay safe out there.

(Source: USDA, NOAA, WeatherNation, NBC News, Nature Communications, PBS,

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