States along the West Coast are reporting record numbers of wildfires over the last few months. Over five million acres have burned in California, Oregon and Washington since August, according to the New York Times.
Each of the three states declared a state of emergency as hundreds of residents were forced to evacuate their homes. Washington and Oregon airlines suspended flights because of visibility issues from the smoke.
Over 17,000 firefighters are on the front lines in California, working to contain 23 major wildfires. Overall, there have been over 8,200 wildfires in California burning over 4 million acres.
However, the effects of wildfires are not contained to the West Coast. Utahns are experiencing severe drops in air quality throughout the state as the smoke drifts across state lines.
Several students at Westminster College who grew up on the West Coast are also watching their hometowns burn. Others say they have family members who work as firefighters trying to control the spread.
Fighting the fires
Noah Humphrey, a 21-year-old graduate from Utah State University talked about his work with the fires this past month. Humphrey works as a fire technician for the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forestry Fire & State Lands program.
Humphrey works on the handcrew, cutting down trees with chainsaws to prevent massive wildfires.
“I signed up for the job knowing I was giving up my summer,” Humphrey said. “I thought I’d be ready. But it has still been very mentally taxing and straining physically.”
Utah’s fire season begins in June, lasting through the end of October.
“The exhaustion is really starting to set in.”
“We are [entering] month five of fire season this year with at least a month left to go,” Humphrey said. “The exhaustion is really starting to set in for a lot of people employed to combat and manage the wildfires.”
Despite the national coverage, California, Oregon and Washington aren’t the only states struggling with wildfires.
Humphrey said his crew has jumped “fire-to-fire nonstop” between Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Idaho — following the fires wherever they pop up.
Fires impact Utahns emotionally
For many students, the wildfires hit close to home. Many Westminster students who grew up on the West Coast say it’s difficult to watch their childhood homes go up in flames.
Danny Edmund, a senior with a custom major in aviation management, said he has felt the effects of the wildfires happening in Oregon.
Edmund is from Medford, Oregon — a town heavily impacted by the wildfires.
Firefighters from Medford were called in to help combat fires in nearby town Ashland, Oregon. This became an issue when several fires sparked in Medford with few firefighters to help.
“My parents had some necessities packed up in a trailer in case they needed to evacuate,” Edmund said.
Eric Freiberg, a 49-year-old firefighter and paramedic, said the fires have also affected him and his family.
“The wildfires have affected my life by taking me away from home for two and a half months this year,” Freiberg said.
Freiberg was deployed to fight fires in Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Idaho.
“My family has had to be without me […] which has caused me to miss some of my daughter’s activities and family gatherings,” Freiberg said.
Smoke impacts Utah’s air quality
Wildfire smoke along the West Coast has produced some of the worst air quality on the planet, according to reports. The haze has reached as far as New York City.
“Some of the fires I have been on I have only been able to see 20-30 feet [in front of me] when the smoke settles in,” Freiberg said. “At home, we have dealt with the smoke from Nevada and California fires. You can definitely tell that your breathing is affected when there is a lot of smoke and you try to be active.”
A blanket of smoke and haze smothered much of the West, creating hazardous air quality.
“They were living in the smoke.”
“I have friends that live three or four hours north of my hometown, and it was bad in a different way,” said Danny Edmund, who grew up in Medford, Oregon. “They weren’t necessarily threatened by the fires, but they were living in the smoke.”
Edmund said he received several photos from childhood friends that showed an unrecognizable world.
“Smoke was entering their houses, covering their cars, they were having trouble breathing,” he said. “The whole entire environment was a dark yellow.”
Country splits on whether fires caused by climate change
As wildfires spread, political leaders have expressed differing opinions about the underlying causes.
Governors along the West stressed that climate change has made fires more dangerous, because of the drying forests and rising global temperatures, according to the New York Times.
However, President Donald Trump has repeatedly denied the existence of climate change — blaming the fires on “poor forest management.”
“I believe that climate change is altering the ecosystem to some extent,” said Noah Humphrey. “The whole world isn’t simply going to heat up but could change in a myriad of ways.”
Eric Freiberg, a 49-year-old firefighter and paramedic, said he believes climate change has been a prominent factor in the recent wildfires.
“I believe that climate change is real and that it has been a driving factor in drying out the fuel and allowing the fires to burn hotter and bigger,” Freiberg said.
Humphrey said it’s not uncommon for wildfire season to last until late winter, especially in recent years.
“There are a number of reasons wildfires feel like the number one disaster in every recent summer,” he said. “Climate change may very well be one of these reasons, but it can’t accept the full blame.”
According to Humphrey, the wildland-urban interface is also a considerable factor in damaging wildfires.
Wildland-urban interface is when people build their homes deeper into the natural landscapes, accepting the higher risk to their homes.
“We need to do a much better job to understand that fire is natural and would happen periodically in the landscapes almost as a reset button to old and unwell forest/rangelands,” Humphrey said.
Although climate change isn’t new, Bridger Layton, Westminster alum and manager of the Environmental Center, said the recent wildfires put it into a more immediate lens.
“We know climate change is happening, and we know that it’s a problem and that there are going to be scary ramifications,” Layton said. “[Then] there are events like this that really put it into real terms and make it scary in an immediate way.”
Layton said fire is a natural process, but when humans put out every fire it leaves forests with huge amounts of fuel — essentially creating a tinderbox.
“Climate change frequently interacts with other existing issues,” said Layton. “With wildfires, it creates a perfect storm.”
The natural wildfires combined with increasing temperatures and more severe droughts make for a dire situation, he said.
“To me, it feels like a really great time for everyone […] to really look at climate change critically, and ask what we should be doing,” Layton said.