East Coasters woke up on Tuesday morning to a brownish, hazy sunrise and a smoky smell that wasn’t wafting from the lox on their breakfast bagels. It had arrived courtesy of the wildfires raging on the other side of the continent, and specifically appeared to stem in part from the Bootleg fire in Oregon that has consumed a swath of terrain larger than the city of Los Angeles.
The message from the experts? Basically: Get used to it.
“I’m from Connecticut, so these problems can seem remote. I do feel like there’s a bias sometimes, that this isn’t affecting the average person,” said Neil Lareau, a researcher focused on fire weather and wildfire plumes at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Thanks to climate change, however, “as our fire seasons get worse in the West in the summer, that smoke is going to go from west to east,” Lareau told The Daily Beast, adding that the smoke will “become an export of the western United States to the rest of the continent moving forward.”
These sorts of large-scale effects are far from unique to the United States. Which is all the more reason to be concerned.
“We’ve seen smoke in South America from Australian fires,” Vincent Ambrosia, associate program manager for wildfires at NASA’s Applied Science Program, explained. “These transports are global in mechanism, so that’s how it’s going to affect people in other parts of the United States. They go, ‘Oh, this is just a problem for the West.’ It’s a problem for all of us.”
How big of a problem is it, exactly?
Pretty big, according to Chris Dicus, researcher in natural resources management at California Polytechnic State University and president of the Association for Fire Ecology. “Even if not in the fire’s path,” Dicus told The Daily Beast, people will have to deal with what he called a “toxic witch’s brew of chemicals from burning homes [that] can significantly impact people even hundreds of miles away from the nearest flames.”
“For example,” Dicus added, “San Francisco was buried in smoke for weeks in 2020 from fires that were far away from the city, giving it an other-worldly appearance and causing all kinds of respiratory problems for those living there.”
So where could phenomena like this “other-worldly” smoke appear next? “You’re going to see much greater air quality issues in places like Denver, Kansas City, the upper Midwest in particular, just due to standard airflow patterns,” Ambrosia said.
Worst of all, smoke in the air isn’t the only fire-related weather phenomenon that could become more widespread.
To start with, more Americans are going to see pyrocumulus clouds. As Ambrosia explained, these are “basically a lot of smoke and particles that are carried aloft, and those chemicals and particles—ash, whatever you want to call it—become cloud-condensing nuclei.”
In other words, they allow moisture in clouds to attach to those particles, and create particle clouds that rain down onto the fire itself—which is not in and of itself a big problem. But the rain can also fall “at some small distance from the fire event,” he explained.
Ambrosia said this pyrocumulus rain contains nitrates from the burned plant matter, which can act as fertilizer, but can also contaminate the water supply wherever they fall. According to the CDC, nitrates in water are a health hazard, especially for children and pregnant women.
Ambrosia described pyrocumulus clouds as a problem mostly for the western U.S. to deal with, but Lareau is concerned that they might not stay quite so contained. He pointed to a history of pyrocumulus and pyrocumulonimbus clouds—the latter described by NASA as the “fire-breathing dragon of clouds”—in New Hampshire “back when the logging industry was much more active, pre-National Forests.”
He also pointed to “fire tornadoes in the upper Midwest,” as events with historical precedent, and thus something to watch out for, even if they aren’t likely per se.
Fires in New England with the size and intensity of the ones currently devastating communities in the West sound outlandish for good reason—the landscapes are simply so much greener and more moist than many of those in states like California and Oregon. If such fires do materialize in the coming decades, the weather patterns leading to them would be quite different.
“In the West, the summer is hot and dry. We get relatively little—and sometimes no—precipitation in California for the duration of the summer, and that almost certainly will never be true along the East Coast of the United States, but there are those windows and those opportunities in a warming climate in particular,” Lareau said.
For example, according to Lareau, “sometimes we see active early-spring fire seasons [on the East Coast] before the green-up of the vegetation and after the snowmelt. So it’s kind of a different window there for high-impact fires.”
Joel Thornton, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, agreed that while folks on the East Coast aren’t about to get used to the sight of pyrocumulus clouds, “if a large enough fire can get going in that region, it wouldn’t be a surprise to find a pyrocumulonimbus develop.”
The important thing to keep in mind—as all these experts stressed in one way or another—is that with the climate in flux, “normal” is basically gone. “We’re dealing with a moving baseline, and that makes it hard to know what that ‘normal’ or ‘what to expect’ is,” Lareau said.
Everyone’s quality of life is being impacted by these fires in ways that, according to Lareau, we “haven’t begun to quantify.”
“I really think it’s kind of a pressing challenge, societally, moving forward, figuring how how we’re going to navigate the pyrocene—the onset of fire playing a larger role in our lives,” Lareau said. “I think it can’t be understated how major of an issue this is, whether you’re remote on the East Coast, or dealing with it in your community on the West Coast.”