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Western wildfires and their effects on West Michigan

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Firefighters battle the Glass Fire as it flares up along Highway 29 South of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park in Calistoga, CA, on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020. Firefighters worked to keep the fire from jumping the highway. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

By Mya Gregory

More than 10 million acres burned. Infernos spreading across California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Utah. thousands of homes destroyed, skies turning orange. Air quality is decreasing. And the peak fire season out West is still on the way. But this doesn’t affect us here in Grand Rapids, right? Think again.

According to Blake Harms, meteorology major at Valparaiso University, and School Prediction Consultant at WOOD-TV, Professor William Faber, and Professor of Chemistry at Grand Rapids Community College, Michigan isn’t necessarily safe from the climate effects of the Western wildfires.

As this wildfire season has already been declared one of the worst years for wildfires, concern is rising. Sadly, the majority of these wildfires are caused by people. The El Dorado Fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres was ignited when a family used a “pyrotechnic device” for a gender reveal. Other fires have been caused by mundane human actions, such as soot from a car being sent into dry vegetation or by power transmission lines. 

Climate change also plays a role. Some of these fires have been caused by lightning strikes, fierce winds blowing the fires out of control, extreme heat waves and dry seasons, and even a sudden winter storm in the Rocky Mountains that made these fires worse. Professor William Faber says that forests are like “carbon dioxide sinks, they pill carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, so when they’re burning, obviously they’re not doing their job, an deven the dead wood afterwards produces more carbon dioxide.” So, even after the fires have stopped burning, they continue to harm our environment.

Some of the effects that people out West are seeing include a thick orange smoke for several days and increased pollution; according to an article by Kare, 31 one people have died due to what is being called “the worst air pollution in the world.” Harms said the fires produce an “apocalyptic scene,” poor air quality that has encouraged many citizens, specifically in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, to remain inside.

So, how do fires that are 2,290 miles away affect Grand Rapids? According to Harms, smoke naturally rises, and can be picked up by the jet stream once it rises high enough. Harms said that this “isn’t uncommon,”; but the difference that we see this year is caused by the immense number of fires, how much land has been burned, and how much smoke has been produced. 

The largest effect that West Michigan is seeing from these fires, according to Harms, has been this elevated smoke. This smoke has caused several days this September, specifically the week of Sept. 14, in which the sun was shining, but almost seemed “cloudy.” This resulted in a haze. Harms said that this haze makes the sunrise and sunsets very “unique, as it’s often a deep red; the sun appears like a red disc, surrounded by a red/blue gradient.” This “haze” also allows residents of Western Michigan to be able to look directly at the sun, and, because of this smoke, not have their eyes burn because it is not too bright. 

Harms reports that, fortunately, the smoke did not mix to the surface, and the only effect was elevated smoke that was often visible and occasionally noticeable. If the smoke were to mix, it could have resulted in worsen effects, similar to those seen out West, including decreased air quality. 

When looking at the increase in natural disasters due to climate change, one can’t help but worry that something similar may happen in their own backyard. 

Harms reports that Grand Rapids is in the midst of its “wettest five year period on record.” This has caused an increase in water levels in the Great Lakes with last year having a statewide average precipitation of 41.8 inches. So one is definitely seeing the effects of climate change in West Michigan.

Are similar wildfires to those out West likely? Probably not. As stated earlier, the majority of those fires are a result of human error, and few, as of right now, are naturally caused. According to Harms, what we can do to help prevent future wildfires is to “listen to weather, park and other officials and avoid doing any activity involving potential flame or explosion when the conditions are windy and dry.” 

We can continue to expect natural disasters like these to occur due to climate change and human activity, unless we do something. If we don’t act now, there may be no time left. 

Not only can we help prevent wildfires in Michigan, but we can aid those out West. According to Professor Faber, we live in a “chemical world, so we have to think about the things we’re putting out into the atmosphere.” One can do simple activities such as reducing their electricity use, utilizing public transport, use energy efficient-products, and of course, reduce, reuse, and recycle, in order to reduce their ecological footprint, which, in turn, will reduce pollution. Some ways that students can do this from home include donating to organizations that help the victims, becoming more educated, signing petitions, and spreading the word. Here are some helpful links: