As Canadian wildfire smoke blanketed Chicago on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Windy City earned the unwelcome distinction of having the “worst air quality of any major city in the world,” according to federal Air Quality Index readings. Authorities issued warnings instructing residents to stay indoors if possible or don masks if they had to be outside. As Chicagoans looked out their windows in horror and disbelief, people in the West likely were thinking, “Welcome to the club.”
Wildfire smoke is a staple of life in the West. Most summers, our beloved mountain ranges disappear in a hazy shroud. Evenings resemble the eerie orange sunset scene from “Star Wars,” while the taste of smoke can make you feel like you’ve swallowed a campfire.
And it is getting worse. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fire season—the time of year when North America’s forests go up in flames—has extended from five months to seven months since the 1970s. Wildfires today consume twice as much land each year on average than they did in the 1990s. In the past eight years, an area the size of Colorado went up in flames, with 10 million acres burned in a single fire season for three of those years—numbers unprecedented since the federal wildland fire agencies began keeping official data in 1983.
What is happening, and what can be done? Climate change is a contributing factor and receives most of the media attention, but the issue runs much deeper. There is simply too much wood in the woods.