This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
The entire West is once again smothered by smoke, tens of thousands have been evacuated, hundreds of homes have been lost and several people have died or been severely injured. And we're just getting started.
The remaining snowpack in Colorado on June 1 was 2 percent of normal and most of the West is less than 50 percent of normal. The yearly loss of forests, watershed, homes, property, wildlife habitat and tourism revenue is steadily increasing. Fire season in the West lasts 78 days longer than it did 25 years ago.
"What we're seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like. It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster," Princeton climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said last week.
But this year won't likely become the new norm. Scientists increasingly warn it is just the prelude of worse to come. Most Utahns will probably be inhaling wildfire smoke until the fall, not just this summer but every summer. In fact, summer may bring even worse air pollution than our notorious winter temperature inversions because we will have both high ozone from hotter temperatures and increasing particulate matter from wildfires.
There is a growing body of evidence that wildfire and wood smoke are much more toxic and more easily inhaled than typical urban smog. Most of the particles are so small they can enter any home through cracks around windows and doors. The mercury that is launched into the atmosphere by coal-burning power plants is being deposited on trees and vegetation worldwide. Wildfires revitalize the mercury, releasing another wave of deadly exposure. In most years, more than 80 percent of forest fires are caused by humans, more specifically by a small number of idiots. This year it's 90 percent.
But the idiocy isn't limited to those clueless or careless enough to go target shooting and light fireworks in dry grass with 40 mph winds and 100-degree temperatures. Similar idiocy is rampant in the Utah Legislature, which was recently excoriated in The Los Angeles Times, which noted that Utah law "prevents state agencies from enacting any rule to restrict recreational shooting without the Legislature's permission even in areas at high risk for fires, even during a drought."
Gun worship remains unchallenged. Freedom to shoot whenever, wherever and whatever pays off with even more freedoms, like the freedom to inhale wildfire smoke all summer. Predictably, Gov. Gary Herbert has pleaded for common sense and caution, while rejecting the same as governor. There is no special legislative session, no statewide moratorium on fireworks, open target shooting or anything that might represent an appropriate response to the reality at hand.
Congress has made matters worse by cutting funds for fire fighting and prevention by $512 million, while leaving intact over $10 billion a year in fossil-fuel subsidies.
The climate crisis has turned our landscape into kindling for these infernos. Settlement of the West has always been at the mercy of heat and drought, but we are clearly entering a new climate chapter, staring at unprecedented ecological destruction.
The governor and the Legislature throw gasoline on these fires, almost literally, by enabling every means possible to frack, drill, scrape and burn every fossil fuel deposit in the state. At the national level, the fossil fuel cabal and its bought-and-paid-for members of Congress are holding the rest of the country hostage, while our homes go up in flames, our natural landscapes, watersheds and recreational areas are destroyed, our lungs are scarred and more and more of the environment that sustains our lives is ruined.
Most of these people are the same ones who are outraged at the idea that man evolved from apes. I share their outrage. Apes would be smarter than this.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of Union of Concerned Scientists.