Climate Action Collaborative: Smoke from a distant (or close) fire
Climate Action Collaborative
Last summer, I learned a new verb:
ashed, ashing, ashes.
1.) To apply ash to; to coat with ashes (Merriam Webster)
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2.) When ash from nearby wildfires gets picked up by the wind and then falls like rain (Claire Kantor, and probably others)
To use it in a sentence: I was eating dinner outside on a hazy summer evening in Avon when it began ashing on my food. I looked up at the opaque orange layer that covered the sun, then looked down at the ash in my drink. The air smelled like a campsite. My eyes were a little watery. My lungs felt the burn.
At the time of being ashed on, Eagle County was seemingly surrounded by some of Colorado’s most furious wildfires to date and more were raging on the West Coast. The smoke from these fires, near and far, has a way of settling in our little valley, creating quite a sensory experience. It’s like walking into someone’s cigarette cloud, but we can’t just wave our hand in front of our face to clear the air.
We know what the flames are doing to the land, but we also have to think about what the smoke is doing to our air quality. At the time of writing this in late July, Colorado is currently experiencing smoke and haze from 81 wildfires across 12 states. The Air Quality Index around 6:30 p.m. this past Saturday was 118, adjusted for particles specific to wildfire smoke. This is at the Orange level, or a level that is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” What does this mean?
For pollution of any kind, the AQI is the standard air quality indicator in the United States. AQI is determined by sensors that measure the size and the amount of particles in the air.
If you check your local AQI, you might see either “PM2.5” or “PM10.” PM is “particulate matter” and the number is the particle size, in microns; a size that is a fraction of the diameter of a human hair and small enough to get into our lungs.
These particles may come from factory smog, dust kicked up by cars or smoke from fires. Once the PM is measured, the AQI shows a number from 0 to 500. The range is divided into six color-coded categories. The higher the score, the higher the pollution and the health risks.
An AQI below 100 (green and yellow) is generally good for most populations. Levels above 100 (orange, purple, red, maroon) start to affect “sensitive groups” like the elderly, young kids and people with various respiratory or cardiovascular conditions. As the score rises, public health threats such as exacerbation of preexisting heart and lung diseases, irritation of airways and decreased lung capacity are likely to affect more than just those sensitive groups.
Since our wildfire seasons are longer, and smoke in the valley can boost our AQI to way over 100, it is worth getting in the habit of checking your local AQI like you check the weather before your outings. If you see levels above 100, assess your health and avoid exercising outside if necessary. For even higher levels (darker colors), it’s a good idea to stay indoors when possible.
Though AQI is a useful tool to safeguard our lungs, the best way to protect ourselves from wildfires, the toxic smoke, and subsequent dangers is reducing the risk at the source. Our wildfire season is tremendously aggravated by climate change.
One study estimates human-caused climate change has nearly doubled the burn area of forest fires across the Western United States from 1984 to 2015. If we continue on with business as usual, our hillsides will be dotted by burn scars, our crisp and clean mountain air will be frequently dirtied by wildfire smoke, and we will see longer periods of dangerous AQI levels.
Therefore, curbing our emissions today is the most effective strategy to lower wildfire risks and improve air quality tomorrow. The strategies mapped out in Eagle County’s Climate Action Plan, as well as the Community Resilience Plan, can help get us to a 50% emissions reduction as soon as 2030. Use these plans and implement these strategies in your life to help stop the use of “ash” as a verb, and make our communities less vulnerable to the threat of fires.
Claire Kantor is a Climate Action Collaborative Associate at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. The Climate Action Collaborative is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Eagle County 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.