America’s Air Quality Alert

Fires in California have cast a pall from coast to coast

By Rob Breeding

Smoke is roiling the nation.

At least the sunsets are pretty, though it’s not as if sunsets need help in that regard.

The exact source may change season to season, but smoky fall sunsets have become our constant. This year it’s fires in California that have cast a pall from coast to coast.

The fire season in the Northern Rockies — not too intense this year to begin with — is winding down. Autumn brings snow in the north and you don’t need a Ph.D. in fire science to understand what that means.

It’s early in California, however. There, fall is usually peak season for fire and smoke. Snow comes late in the south, if at all. And fall brings the Santa Ana winds, which pour off the Great Basin plateau into the canyons of the coastal mountains with tornadic force. When those hot, dry winds reach smoldering chaparral in the coastal ranges, the fire that results is an ungovernable inferno that burns until it decides to stop.

In such conditions firefighting is really just a suggestion. Crews dig line persuading fire to turn away from homes and people. But they can’t make it turn away.

It’s become cliché to note ecological rebirth in the aftermath of even catastrophic fire. Last winter I hunted quail in some of the canyons that funnel the winds to the coast. The chaparral burned a few years before, and the vegetation was green and diverse and rippled with birds.

There were blackened manzanita and scrub oak stumps scattered in the grass to remind us of before, when it would have been difficult to walk through the chaparral, even with a machete. Hunting would have mostly involved listening for unseen flushing quail somewhere in the brush, and disappointed looks from the dogs wondering why we couldn’t keep up.

Fortunately, the chaparral, like the forests of the north, rises like a phoenix.

It’s true, but that doesn’t make it OK. We suppressed fire for a century in the fire dependent ecosystems of the West. While we were at it we cozied up to the toe of mountain landscapes and then, not surprisingly, lobbied for even more fire suppression to protect the homes we built in the middle of a fire dominated landscape.

On top of that we’ve added climate change, which is slowly, but unceasingly heating and drying the southern tier of the country while rendering the West as a whole especially flammable.

Change is coming. Self inflicted change.

We’ll either change our ways in an effort to mitigate the impact of climate change, or we won’t. In that case, the change will come when we start migrating away from places no longer habitable — see Florida, underwater — toward places with mild winter weather — see Montana bereft of its forests and trout streams.

At my place the dogs are oblivious to all this change. They’re happy for afternoon walks along what I’ve dubbed Whippoorwill Lane, a short road near the house frequented by noisy flocks of killdeer. Doll has grown too old to pay them much mind, but each time out the puppy, Jade, shows more interest.

Jade is probably a year away from being terribly useful in the field, but I’m still doing all I can to prepare her to hunt those windswept California canyons this winter. I’d like to get her out on the sharptail prairie soon, just so she can put an eye on Doll while the big dog points and retrieves.

Alas, my truck is in the shop getting a valve job, so we’re not going hunting anytime soon.

For now I’m hoping to get a little “whoa” training in, fixing the puppy’s attention with quail wings I saved from last year. That, and those bobbing killdeer, will have to do for now.

I doubt the puppy will notice the orange sunset.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.