The Rocky Mountains have always greeted me on my drive home. Their snow-capped peaks stood out against the bright blue Colorado sky. We don’t have many cloudy days here; it was one of the things that drew me to this state when I decided to move here. Yet, recently the mountains are nowhere to be seen. There’s still not a cloud in sight, but the mountains seem to have disappeared. In their place is a thick, choking smog that makes your eyes water and your throat burn.
For the last few weeks, Colorado, California, and Arizona have been suffering numerous forest fires throughout the states. These aren’t the only states suffering forest fires; they’re just the states with the biggest fires. Although the majority of the fires are occurring in the West of the country, effects are being felt all across the nation as the smoke is swept East. Forest fires like these release carbon monoxide into the air as well as carcinogens such as formaldehyde. However, Landes, the Colorado air quality meteorologist, says that “Wildfire smoke is made up of thousands of compounds and you know, most of them are nasty for our health, but for protecting public health, we’re most concerned with fine particulates.”
Particulate matter, or PM, is what scientists have been warning us about all of 2020. When particulate matter is smaller than 2.5 micrometers, otherwise known as PM 2.5, it can get into our airways and cause detrimental health effects. Long-term exposure can cause heart, lung, and liver disease and possibly lead to a heart attack or stroke. However, even short-term exposure has adverse effects such as inflammation in the lungs and lowered immunity that can increase the risk of pneumonia, and amidst the pandemic, the risk of the coronavirus.
I have asthma, and aside from not being able to see the mountains, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night with severe attacks. My partner, who usually only suffers from asthma during allergy season, also has been waking up out of breath. We’ve noticed a layer of “dust” settling on our house and windows. Our French Bulldog loses his breath a lot faster on walks to the point that we’re only letting him out in the backyard, so he doesn’t overexert himself during this time of poor air quality. The air feels hostile when you step outside, making face masks that protect against PM 2.5 an even bigger priority.
Scientists believe that this explosion of forest fires, including Colorado’s largest wildfire in history, are the result of climate change. California has suffered some of the world’s hottest days on record, with Death Valley experiencing a thermometer-shattering 130°F earlier in August. Scientists say that this was likely the hottest temperature on Earth backed by reliable record-keeping. In the same month, the National Weather Service issued its first-ever warning of a tornado made of fire, otherwise called a ‘firenado.’ With these record-breaking temperatures sweeping across the West, the vegetation is drying out, making it more susceptible to being set ablaze. New research from a team of scientists from Stanford University show that climate change has more than doubled wildfires in California.
These forest fires affect everyone. The symptoms my family and I have been experiencing started before the fires in Colorado because the smoke from the California wildfires traveled for thousands of miles. With more wildfires burning now in multiple states, the smoke can travel even farther, meaning you can be affected even on the East coast. It is imperative that you and your loved ones wear face masks with PM 2.5 filters and check the air quality frequently. However, the fundamental way to protect ourselves is to stop these fires from getting worse year after year. Protecting our water systems, reducing pollution, and slowing down climate change have to be our utmost priority these next few years.
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Photo: Neil Thomas on Unsplash