Colorado haze

Smoke obscures the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains

Colorado is having a relatively quiet wildfire season this summer, but you wouldn’t know that from the views (or should I say lack of views) along the Front Range this past week.  Most people know the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina who get their smokiness from the fog that hangs over the mountains after rainstorms.  Well, we are truly seeing “smoky” mountains or not seeing them because of the horrendous wildfire situation out on the west coast.  Currently, there are almost 30 wildfires actively burning in Oregon and Washington, with over a million acres that have burned.  A cold front that would normally be quite welcome this time of year is sending winds in from the Pacific Northwest down into northern Colorado, bring smoke along with it.

For us Colorado residents, that means that views of almost 100 miles on a clear day are now reduced to less than five miles.  It seems to worsen as the winds pick up during the day, and by the time I drive home along the foothills at the end of the day, you can barely see the shapes of the mountains through the thick haze.  Pity the poor tourist from back east who booked their Rocky Mountain vacation for this week, because those stellar views from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park or Peak to Peak highway are completely obscured by our smoky skies.  And it’s not just the views that have been altered but the air quality as well.  When visibility goes down below five miles due to smoke and haze, the air quality is considered unhealthy, and a “Smoke Health Advisory” is issued.  Though it’s mainly intended for elderly folks and those with respiratory conditions, I can tell you that after spending just a few hours outside, I notice it.

Today, I was at one of our local county parks, and after just two hours, my throat felt very dry and scratchy.  As I was hiking, I felt as if it was harder breathing, and I had less energy.  Trying to hike one of our higher peaks would be that much harder with such poor air quality, and there’s no reward at the summit of a magnificent view, just more thick haze.  I know for myself, I feel a lot less inspired to go on long hikes in these conditions. I’ve also noticed my hair feels dryer and dirtier from spending time outside in the smoky environment.  It’s also impacted our local fire departments, as not only have Forest service firefighters been sent to help, but even local metro fire departments in Longmont have sent both engines and firefighters to assist.  The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) has declared the U.S. at Level 5, the most urgent of wildfire preparedness level, equivalent to “All Hands on Deck.”  Every available resource is being sent to help out, including firefighters from other countries as far away as New Zealand.  You know things are bad when the official weather service forecast calls for “partly smoky” skies for days on end.

Fortunately, for us in Colorado, the winds are forecast to change direction about mid-week, which should alleviate a lot of our unhealthy and hazy skies.  But for the folks along west coast, the fires continue to rage on. No matter how many firefighters they send out there to help, there’s really only one remedy that will rid them of the thick smoke — a change in weather.  Everyone’s watching, waiting and probably even praying for some wet weather to help douse the raging fires.  No matter how many articles are published about El Nino, no one can really know what will happen in the months to come until the rain and snow starts to fall from the sky, and the fires start to die out.  Unfortunately, the situation has become so dire from a number of dry winters, that they need more than a couple of rainstorms, but several winters of above average precipitation, or else we will be repeating this terrible fire season one more time next year.  I hope for those living in the western states, whether it be California, Oregon and Washington or those of us in the Rocky Mountains, that the rains come sooner rather than later.