Posted on September 14, 2020 by Samuel I. Gutter
We are in Yosemite, midway through our month-long RV trip out west. We planned this trip long before the world heard of Covid-19, but decided it was the lowest risk vacation we might take in 2020, so off we went. After two weeks of hot sun and blue skies in the stunningly beautiful national and state parks of Southern Utah, we headed toward our planned stops in California and Oregon. And then we hit the wall – the fire wall.
Coming into California through Death Valley and driving north, the normally majestic Sierra Nevada range on our left was barely visible. At our next stop in June Lake, air quality was determined by the direction of the wind. When the wind blew from the west, the mountains disappeared and the smell of smoke was everywhere. There was no hiking – all National Forests in California are closed, with stringent fines for violators, out of concern that even the stray cigarette butt could add to the conflagration. Further north, huge areas of Oregon that have never experienced wide-scale fires are burning, with devastating consequences.
Driving west into Yosemite on State highway 120, we had to be escorted by Park Service vehicles through areas where local fires are burning trees right up to the edge of the road. Now at midday, the sky is Martian-orange with heavy smoke from the Creek Fire. The scene is eerie and apocalyptic.
So instead of heading north to California and Oregon as we had planned, we’re backtracking to Utah and Arizona, before returning home to the East Coast. For us, it’s a route change and an inconvenience. For many others, it’s a human and economic tragedy on top of the unprecedent crush of the pandemic.
And it’s an environmental disaster. The embedded map is from the U.S. government’s AirNow site, www.airnow.gov, and shows unhealthy and dangerous air quality blanketing California and Oregon. Make no mistake; the fires are the direct consequence of climate change. Standing among the embers in Oroville, California Governor Newsom said, “This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening.” www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-09-11/california-wildfires-climate-change-gavin-newsom-trump
To those of us who have spent decades involved in clean air regulations, what is happening now on the West Coast viscerally dwarfs the impacts from controlled stationary and mobile sources. While hopefully transient in time, this seems worse than any day in the history of Southern California’s smog alerts in the latter half of the last century. I don’t mean to belittle the long-term importance of emission regulations – they are essential to public health and welfare – but this tragedy is a stark reminder that unless we vigorously deal with global climate change, we will continue to experience very real and immediate consequences, including public health and safety emergencies, on an immense scale.