Monday, March 28, 2022

Western Wildfires: Hello, Climate Change is Here to Stay

 By Cal Orey

 When I was young and carefree, in my twenties, I visited South Lake Tahoe. It was me and my Lab. Due to wildfires, all the roads were closed. Back then, the falling ash, dark skies, no sun didn't affect my mind that much. All I cared about was no tan...
And now, it's 2022. I found this blog post written in 2013. How quick I forgot about all the wildfires I've endured in the sierras. Sure, last summer in 2021--it was the "Big One"... Twenty days of evacuation and the threat of losing our mountain town. And now, locals wonder, "Will it happen again?' as summertime and fall are next up...

In the August of 2013 my forecast of the Western wildfires came true. I sensed my town of Lake Tahoe could be next in line—and in a round-about way—it was affected. (No, it wasn't the target like in 2021.) In mid-August, the sierras were surrounded by wildfires (more than one)  burning out of control in Northern California. 
Here, is my up close and personal first-person account of what it’s like to live and cope with the fallout of being in the middle of multiple wildfires and surviving the eerie fallout.

The Rim Fire, Burning by Yosemite National Park
The wildfire ignited August 17 (caused by man), and spread to more than 180,000 acres. Smoke rising from the Rim Fire, had moved into the Lake Tahoe basin and surrounding regions, causing air quality to go south—affecting the health of people and pets of all ages.
Worse, as time passed, the Lake Tahoe area was tagged by authorities including NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the El Dorado County Air Quality Management District.as “unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “unhealthy”! What’s more, areas in Nevada, including Carson City and Reno were facing “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” conditions.  It was a time of uncertainty, a time of caution.

Smoke Ups Health Risks
As each hour and day passed, I watched in disbelief and past wildfire images hit my mind. This was like the 2007 Angora Fire—which I evacuated to Reno, fleeing the drama of helicopters, evacuation phone calls, dark skies, and falling ash. This time around, the gray air was spreading throughout Northern California and Northern Nevada. There was nowhere to run and hide.
I found myself scrutinizing eye-opening reports of South Lake Tahoe’s Barton Memorial Hospital. It was unsettling. Officials were getting flooded with respiratory complaints and numbers of emergency-room patients soared.  We were told by NOAA warning advisories for people and pets to stay indoors, shut the windows, cease physical activities, and drink water to prevent hydration.
At first, I was affected by not being able to enjoy keeping my windows open (it was the warm summer), and denied taking my two active dogs for long walks. The pool where I swim was closed due to the unsafe air quality. People were wearing masks at stores—it made me think of SARS in Asia and the film “Contagion." (I did not know it was foreshadow for COVID/Caldor Fire in 2021.) In fact, one night I couldn’t sleep—I was busy plotting my evacuation. But note, I’d have to drive as far as Half Moon Bay on the coast to be able to get genuine fresh air like our mountains usually has plenty of for locals and tourists.
Sure, I am healthy. I do not have health issues like heart disease, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But being advised to stay indoors was making me feel anxious, isolated, and trapped. Looking up at the sky at dusk to see a reddish sun with ash falling down on our trees, vehicles was eerie. Worse, to see a red moon late at night without stars was like a freaky nightmare—like the aftermath of a nuclear war. Nuclear winter had hit or so it seemed.
By late August, some physical symptoms hit me. I was coughing, sneezing, endured a headache, and developed a sore throat. The cable guy told me every afternoon he was feeling lightheaded and ill. And, I received phone calls from my sibling on the Nevada side that the smoke quality looked worse than on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. He sent me chilling, eye-opening pictures via e-mail that were surreal looking. But that’s not all…

Long-Term Dangers of Wildfire Ash
Experts said ash falling into the lake can cause problems but we will not know until next year of the entire damage. Some wildlife is affected, too,but the long-term effects on humans and their pets are unknown. 
In a poll created by the Tahoe Daily Tribune, residents showed more concern for their family’s health than not being able to play outdoors. This fact, in itself, made me feel like I was hardly alone—I was one of countless people concerned about the fallout that surrounded us from the fires that burned and affected our environment and health.
I dished reports via social networking, from my own experience. In one post I wrote: “It's like we're in off season. The store was dead tonight!  I crave swimming, long dog walks, clean air, and open windows.” 
And yes, the surreal nature of smoky skies brought back memories of the Oakland Firestorm—a horrific event where people and their pets died because there was only one road out and firefighters could not get in to rescue victims.
On September 1, the Rim Fire was more than one third contained. The day before, while tourists were less than more for the Labor Day Weekend, at times I could see the mountains across the Lake, I took the dogs for a longer walk, and I saw kids swimming in the water and adults on bicycles. But then, in the morning hazy skies returned. The NOAA advisories noted there would be waxing and waning of the air quality until the fire was contained, estimated September 20.

Fallen Leaf Lake...I can see clearly now...in the fall.
So, this fire, one of the largest in California history, will not be forgotten, nor the last one. As global warming continues, the air remains dry and we get less precipitation, wildfires, say experts, may burn longer and may be worse in the years to come. But as I cope with the fallout from this wildfire of 2013, I will never take fresh air for granted.  It’s a precious thing that we need to survive.

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