Anatomy of a smokey hellscape: Douglas Fischer

A wildfire torches a mountain range – and sends air quality plummeting for 200,000 people.

BOZEMAN, Mont.—Living in the Rocky Mountains, we often joke about our five seasons: Fall, winter, spring, summer and smoke.


You always pray smoke season comes late and ends quickly. Because when the smoke comes in thick – like it did last month when California lit up and winds funneled the plumes into south-central Montana – life is hell, like living in an ash tray. Sinuses clog up, headaches bloom, everyone gets grumpy.

A fire begins

start of the Bridger Foothills Fire

Start of the Bridger Foothills fire, at 4:30p Friday, Sept. 4.

Ben Alexander

It's also hard to imagine just how much smoke even a modest fire generates – and how quickly a small fire grows into a modest one and from there into a large one.

On Friday afternoon, shortly after forecasters issued a red flag warning for the weekend, a small fire started in the foothills near Bozeman. Authorities would later conclude it was caused by a lightning storm that rolled through a week earlier; it smoldered in the duff, undetected, until conditions changed.

Winds quickly fanned it up to the ridge, and then over the side, as air tankers and smoke jumpers tried to beat it back.

smokey landscape

Fire and smoke cover the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman, Mont. on Saturday, Sept. 5.

Phineas Fischer

And then it exploded.

Hot winds picked up Saturday afternoon, the flames leapt, and air quality for 200,000 people across six counties went from green to yellow to red.

Smoke season was back.

And this, recall, is a small fire. The Fire and Smoke Map, run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service, offers a look at the awesome scale of the West on fire – and where your smoke is coming from.

Not coming back

Bridger Foothills Fire

Ben Alexander

With structures burning and families evacuating in Bridger Canyon, this is no time for lectures about climate change.

But I co-teach a course at Montana State University about climate science and policy. We often take students up to the local ski area, Bridger Bowl, towards which the Bridger Foothills Fire is now racing, to talk about changing snow lines and altered landscapes.

The scientists we take with us always tell us that when (and it is never "if") the Bridger Mountains burn, the Douglas Fir-Twin Flower habitat that exists today is not coming back. The climate has dried and changed too much. We will see, they predicted, something very different.

Looks like we get to see if they were right.

Banner photo of the Bridger Foothills Fire on Saturday, Sept. 5., by Douglas Fischer

www.newyorker.com

The tragedy of the West Coast wildfires

The disaster encapsulates a moment in which both science and the everyday rhythms of American life seem to be under assault.

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the environment

The nonpartisan website On the Issues compiles running records of public officials' actions on the environment. Here's their file on the late Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

www.nbc12.com

With coal in crisis, will Virginia be saddled with millions in mine cleanup costs?

As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates King Coal’s decline, Virginia could be on the hook for millions in cleanup costs if an anticipated wave of bankruptcies destabilizes its bond pool system for managing the risks of company failures.
www.csmonitor.com

EPA signals shift to community clean-ups instead of climate change

The EPA chief says that if President Trump is reelected, the agency will shift focus to community clean-ups and off of climate change. Critics argue the agency has abandoned its “core mission of protecting human health and the environment.”

Solar power on the rise at US schools

When Mount Desert Island High School in Maine decided to use solar power, they turned to the students.

Keep reading... Show less