Smoke out West

I used to look at satellite maps of the U.S. at night to remind me of where I want to live. I looked for the darkest, emptiest spaces in the West — in daylight, places where you can see mountains and sky. Now, I look at maps full of wildfire smoke and wonder what’s next.

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The NOAA smoke map I saw this morning showed wildfire smoke stretching clockwise from California, Washington and British Columbia over the northern Rockies, Nevada and Utah and, in the forecast version, dropping into Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico.

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Cowboy and I hurried out for our morning walk, seeing it coming. I wanted to make our rounds while I could still see mountains and breathe decent air.

I have had smoke reports in recent days from sisters living in beautiful country in Washington, Utah and Montana.

“Hot, windy and smoky,” sister Hope wrote from Big Sky country the other night.

The smoke here today — or haze, as some weather people are ineffectively calling it — is dense enough that my friend Liz Staley posted this on Facebook on Sunday afternoon: “The Corrales Fire Department is asking residents to stop calling 911 to report the smoke from Oregon, Washington and California. ”

From Corrales, Liz said she could not always see the giant Sandia mountain looming across the river.

Cowboy and I are stuck inside now with these views from the home office. They include my longtime email handle, jemezview, now obliterated, to the northwest.

We’ve gotten used to seeing wildfires in nearly 30 years in Placitas homes: We are in the flight path for slurry bombers flying to the eastern side of the Santa Fe National Forest; the Jemez Mountains, just across the Rio Grande, are close enough that we readily see smoke, especially since fires have gotten more extreme, like Las Conchas in 2011.

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Las Conchas fire on Wikipedia, seen from Placitas.

We have gotten a lot of Arizona smoke in past years, but I don’t remember so often being enveloped in smoke from fires two or three states away.

My closets are full of cold-weather clothing I no longer need to wear in climate-warming New Mexico. I know my smoke complaints pale in comparison to the destruction and costs of fires in progress in other parts of the West. I surely am writing about smoke instead of actual fire because we’ve been lucky this year in my neck of the woods. The 416 fire burned for weeks just north of Durango, Colorado, where I used to seek the refuge of greener and wetter country. The Ute fire in northeast New Mexico nearly burned into Cimarron. My two sides of the upper Rio Grande have been mostly spared, except for some lightning-burns that got some rain in the nick of time.

The last official update on the Venado fire in the Jemez carried a now familiar note on smoke:

“Smoke/Air Quality: Smoke may be visible from Highways 4 and 550 as interior pockets of unburned fuel are consumed by the fire. Smoke-sensitive individuals and people with respiratory or heart disease should be prepared to exercise precautionary measures. Information on air quality and protecting your health using the 5-3-1 visibility method can be found at the New Mexico Department of Health’s website https://nmtracking.org/fire or by calling 1-888-878-8992. For information on the HEPA filter loan program: https://www.santafefireshed.org/hepa-filter-loan-program/”

Nearly 50 years ago, I worked wildfires for a couple of seasons in California. Those fires, whether in eastern Sierra timber or southern California brush, almost seem petty compared to what’s going on now. If I were a reporter again, this new era of fires is the assignment I would want. Things are happening that I don’t think we yet fully grasp.

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