PORTLAND, Ore. — For a full week this month, my family did not leave our house here in this famously outdoorsy city. At times, smoke from the state’s huge wildfires made it hard to see to the end of the block. Sometimes, we could barely see across the street.
The smoke was extreme, yes. But it was also a glimpse of the future. “We’re not going to get off of this wildfire train anytime soon,” said Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “The big question is, how do we want our smoke?”
Once upon a time, smoke was simply part of life in the West. Many ecosystems evolved to tolerate and even depend on fire, which occurred regularly because of lightning, Native American burning practices, and later, settlers. These blazes were often small. In the early 20th century, however, the U.S. government resolved to stamp out wildfires. And for a while, it succeeded, ushering the country through decades of anomalously fire-free, smoke-free summers.
Now, that legacy of suppression has created a fire debt that must be paid back — with interest, because of climate change. And that means learning to live with smoke again. “We’re going to have to accept that you are going to have seasonal smoke in the same way that you may have seasonal allergies,” said Stephen Pyne, an environmental historian and emeritus professor at Arizona State University.
Scientists say that warmer, drier conditions will continue to fuel uncontrolled fires like the recent conflagrations that erupted across the West, producing dangerous palls of intense smoke. However, Dr. Balch and others said they hoped these catastrophes would build public support for a different kind of fire: controlled burning that simulates natural processes and reduces the risk of megafires.
So-called prescribed fires also generate smoke, but at much lower levels and usually in the spring and late fall. Fire managers also try to conduct burns on days when weather conditions limit smoke exposure. The practice is common in the southeastern United States, but, elsewhere, the anti-fire messages of Smokey Bear still prevail, said John Bailey, a fire expert at Oregon State University. “We’ve just been over-indoctrinated,” he said.
Any kind of fire carries some risks, and on rare occasions, prescribed burns have gotten out of control. But catching a whiff of smoke shouldn’t inherently inspire fear, Dr. Bailey said. It could also make people feel “relief that we are managing the fuels and managing the risk rather than waiting to be victim.”
That mentality already exists among members of the Yurok tribe in California, which has a long tradition of managing the land with fire. When people drive past controlled burns, they honk their horns in appreciation, said Margo Robbins, the executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, a nonprofit group. “They stop and tell us how glad that they are that we are doing this.”
Still, wider use of prescribed fire could extend the smoke season in many places, and researchers don’t fully understand how the health impacts of prolonged, low-level exposure compare to those from short, high doses of pollution.
Medical experts do know that there is no safe level of smoke, which causes a litany of respiratory, cardiovascular and other health problems. And that means society will have to adapt.
For many, life could look a bit like it has in the Pacific Northwest these last few weeks: hunkering inside on the worst days with doors and windows sealed, running air-conditioners and purifiers. When venturing out, masks may become routine, “the same way we wear glasses or hearing aids,” Dr. Pyne said.
Dr. Bailey said he suspected that some residents might even undertake seasonal migrations — “smoke birds” instead of “snow birds.”
Those strategies may work for people with flexible jobs, well-built houses, and extra income. But “we should be thinking about those who don’t have the means to do that,” said Colleen Reid, a health geographer and environmental epidemiologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Fire scientists agree on the need for accurate long-range smoke forecasting and robust warning systems to alert the public to risks. In some places, including in the South, residents already receive advance notice about prescribed fires through social media, list serves, or fliers left on doors, said Jennifer Fawcett, an extension associate at North Carolina State University.
In non-pandemic times, clean-air shelters offer relief for people with drafty homes and those with no shelter at all. In the long run, though, buildings and houses should be designed or retrofitted to keep smoke out and filter whatever gets in, Dr. Bailey said.
As with Covid, essential workers face the greatest threats from smoke, and many have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable, Dr. Reid said. To protect them, governments may have to consider steps like prohibiting outdoor work, such as harvesting, on the most dangerous days, she said.
Dr. Pyne said that learning to live with smoke called for even more change, like reining in industrial sources of air pollution. “That would create some space for fire and smoke where we want it,” he said.
After all, smoke has a place in the West. “It’s not that smoke is intrinsically bad any more than fire is intrinsically bad. It’s how it interacts with how we live,” he said. “And part of that problem is deciding, are we living in a way that makes sense?”