We should adapt; Mom Nature performs no favorites
Last week, residents of Sedona and Verde Valley noticed a thickening of high altitude smoke in our skies that lasted for several days over the weekend.
Typically when this happens, we check with our local fire departments about forest fires and InciWeb, a regional interstate website owned by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group that tracks wildfires across the western United States.
The NWCG was founded by the US Department of Agriculture and Home Affairs in 1976 after severe forest fires in 1970 highlighted the need for better coordination between fire service agencies that could cross the boundaries of jurisdiction.
InciWeb is perhaps the NWCG’s best-known public tool, a point of contact for U.S. forest services, state, provincial, and local fire departments to list daily, sometimes hourly, updates of forest fires in their areas with photos, maps, charts, and updates from incident commanders and intelligence officers.
InciWeb at inciweb.nwcg.gov is the resource we cite frequently to show our readers where these fires are actively burning.
On the federal website airnow.gov, this fire data is combined with airborne particle measurements from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Park Service, NASA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the tribal, state, and local air quality agencies merged the country.
Airnow.gov shows the air quality of thousands of test sites as well as the origin of the smoke clouds.
There are more detailed federal, state, and specialized private sector websites that provide more detailed information. However, these two are a common catch when news outlets need a quick overview for their readers.
However, data on these sites, as well as from local and state agencies, has shown that the smoke in our skies from last week to this day did not simply come from a bushfire south of Camp Verde, or a fire in the hills west of Prescott, or a fire caused by lightning on the Mogollon rim east of Payson.
Rather, the smoke from more than 35 forest fires poured into states in California and Oregon.
The fires are associated with a perfect weather storm: strong Santa Ana winds over Nevada and Utah push south and southwest over the wildfires burning in the Sierra Nevada mountains, intensifying them considerably as the jet stream approaching California sweeps up the Pacific coast to Columbia , then back over the eastern Rockies – much of the smoke is trapped over California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, while southerly winds are driving the smoke into southern California, Arizona.
Here in northern Arizona we get smoke from both this southern drift and the northern cyclone rotation.
In the past few years, the occasional wildfire on the California-Arizona border has pushed smoke into our area, but never before have so many fires, which burned so severely over so much of a neighboring state, pushed so much smoke into our skies.
You may have seen photos of California cities bathed in orange light like a scene from Blade Runner: 2049, or heard news that 1 in 10 Oregon residents are under evacuation orders. This fire season is arguably one of the worst we have ever experienced.
Two summers of monsoons without monsoons mean that our terrain is much drier than normal and more likely to burn. In Northern Arizona, however, we were relatively lucky this year, with no smoke. Fewer monsoons also mean fewer lightning strikes, but human error could always lead to the next fire. Climate change and global warming are likely to cause more drastic weather changes in our region in the coming fire seasons, and we need to prepare, adapt, respond and change behavior to protect our natural environment.
Whether we adapt is up to us. Mother Nature never plays favorites – our museums have fossils of thousands of other species that haven’t changed.
Christopher Fox Graham