Smoggy skies and air that smells like a campfire are an annual occurrence in the Treasure Valley as summer comes to a close. However, there is no historical precedent for the current amount of wildfire smoke, and experts warn that the effects are grim.
“It’s certainly an extreme event from a historical perspective,” said Dr. Mojtaba Sadegh.
Sadegh researches climate impacts as an assistant professor of civil engineering at Boise State. His research addresses the rapidly-changing infrastructure needs caused by these climate extremities.
Sadegh explained that due to climate change, wildfire seasons are intensifying and smoky skies are becoming more common and making them feel more “normal,” which can cause these hazards to be underestimated in terms of direct negative impact.
Additionally, the kinds of smoke can create more intense impacts than others.
“With so many houses being burned in the wildfires, a lot more toxic materials are released to the air than just, you know, conifer forest being burned,” Sadegh said.
Factors such as what material is burning, proximity to the fire and previous health conditions of those exposed all determine how at risk a person is to harm or even death due to smoke or low air quality, according to Dr. Sadegh.
“Now we have a lot more people who will be, because of COVID, more acutely affected by wildfire smoke,” said Dr. Jen Pierce, a geoscientist and professor at Boise State who researches wildfires and focuses on climate education.
Although harmful alone, smoke in combination with long-term effects of COVID can be even more dangerous, according to Sadegh. There is recent research indicating COVID symptoms are worsened by smoke.
While estimating deaths caused by smoke is difficult, smoke kills far more people than actual wildfires do, according to Sadegh.
While it can be easy for healthy individuals to overlook the negative effects of smokey air, according to a 2018 study both Dr. Pierce and Dr. Sadegh contributed to, more than 90% of those surveyed in the Treasure Valley observed at least one symptom caused by wildfire smoke within their family.
Phebian Odufuwa, a PhD student in the Ecology, Evolutio, and Behavior Program experienced poor air quality visiting the Frank Church River of No Return in Wilderness, Idaho, at the beginning of September.
“The smoke from the wildfires was snuffing out the life in us,” Odufuwa said.
Odufuwa said the Boise air quality does not usually bother her, but a short trip out of town took her into much worse conditions.
“What the smoke shows us and the point that I try to get across to people is, if you feel smoke affecting your lungs and if you can’t see the foothills, then you are experiencing the effects of climate change,” Pierce said.
In her work on climate education, Pierce encounters many people who are overwhelmed by the problem of climate change and, as a result, do nothing to combat it.
“I think one reason for climate inaction is that people think that climate change is something that might affect future generations,” said Pierce. “They don’t make the connection that wildfires are bigger and more severe because of climate change and that is affecting us now.”
Although the problem is big, there are solutions. Pierce researches how to remove excess carbon which contributes to climate change and store it in soil. This allows for the possibility of collaborating with Idaho farmers to improve soil and combat greenhouse gas accumulation.
“The key to combating climate denial and depression is action,” Pierce said.Many areas in Idaho have been reporting poor air quality that ranges from “unhealthy” to “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” You can check the air quality in your region at airquality.deq.idaho.gov.