Smoke temporarily covered nearly all U.S. lakes between 2019 and 2021

As wildfire activity and severity increase globally, so too does the pervasiveness of wildfire smoke.

Researchers in the U.S. are working to find out how growing amounts of wildfire smoke nationwide affect ecosystems including aquatic habitats. A recent study published in the Global Change Biology research journal found that even smoke impacts lake ecology.

“An incredible 98.9 percent of lakes experienced at least 10 smoke-days a year, with 89.6 percent of lakes receiving over 30 lake smoke-days, and lakes in some regions experiencing up to 4 months of cumulative smoke-days,” the study said.

lake smoke

The term “smoke-days” describes the number of days on which any portion of a lake’s boundary intersected with smoke as defined by NOAA’s hazard mapping system daily smoke product. The smoke-days concept has been used previously to demonstrate smoke exposure by ecoregion, but was used specifically for lakes for the first time in this study.

Smoke and ash from wildfires lower the solar radiation that enters lake habitats, affecting organisms in numerous ways from physiology to behavior, according to the research. Particles from the smoke deposited within lake ecosystems can also affect several biological and geological processes, including the availability and cycling of various nutrients.

Less than 0.01 percent of land in North America burned between 2019 and 2021, but the area covered in smoke was 75 percent of the continent’s total land. The year 2021 marked the largest number of high-density lake smoke-days and is the year with the largest portion of the country burned and largest area covered with smoke, while 2020 had the lowest number of high-density smoke-days and the smallest area burned and smallest area covered with smoke.

“Large knowledge gaps impede our ability to predict and manage the responses of lakes to smoke and ash,” the researchers concluded. “Measuring the extent and effects of smoke and ash deposition remains challenging. Larger-scale studies are necessary to disentangle the mediating effects of scale and watershed context on the responses of lakes to smoke and ash deposition.”

Read the entire study here.

Smoke warnings don’t arrive soon enough

A new study report from the University of Oregon suggests that public warnings on wildfire smoke air quality often aren’t issued till after smoke has already swept into the area. The report details recommendations on better communications by public institutions about wildfire smoke and health risks — so that local residents have more time to prepare. More than half of wildfire-related tweets by 32 institutional accounts in 2022 were posted at peak levels of smoke when exposure risk was highest.

“On the one side, these institutions are doing a great job of highlighting the risks when the risks are present,” said Catherine Slavik, a postdoctoral researcher at the U of O Center for Science Communication Research. She said she hopes more of these conversations will occur before it’s too late for affected residents to prepare.

smoke alerts by location

KEZI reported that of 1287 analyzed tweets, only one in seven instructed and encouraged preparation such as wearing respirators, staying indoors, or using air purifiers. Only 213 of all the tweets used AQI labels to report on the smoky air and only 64 described risks with numeric data — such as percentage likelihood of a fire spreading or the number of acres burning.

Recommendations for smoke communications include expressing hazard severity, risk, likelihood, and mitigation, including numeric information and AQI levels when describing risks, practicing community engagement, and discussing risks outside of the fire season.


Smoke reduced life expectancy across Washington

Most of Washington State’s hazardous air pollution comes from wildfire smoke, burdening already over-burdened populations in the state and lowering the average number of years people in those communities are expected to live.

A new report from the state’s Department of Ecology looked into air pollution across Washington and found that the largest contributor to air pollution in over-burdened communities was from wildfire smoke. The DOE is working to improve air quality in 16 places, representing numerous communities, neighborhoods, and towns across Washington that are overburdened and highly impacted by criteria air pollution.

Targeted areas in Washington

The federal Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for six common air pollutants. The DOE monitors these pollutants and acts if levels become unhealthy. These  pollutants are:

During the cold season, the largest contributor to air pollution was usually smoke from wood-burning stoves or furnaces.

Residents of the studied overburdened communities, on average, live 2.4 years shorter lives than the state average and also have higher numbers of deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Satellite photo, Bolt Creek (on the north) and Cedar Creek fires Sept. 10, 2022. Processed by Pierre Markuse.
Satellite photo, Bolt Creek (north) and Cedar Creek fires Sept. 2022. Processed by Pierre Markuse.

“Long-term exposure to air pollution may contribute to development of disease — for example, asthma development in children or chronic cardiovascular conditions in adults,” the department’s report says. “Further, short-term exposure to air pollution is associated with exacerbations in existing conditions such as asthma or COPD.”

The overburdened communities included:

        • Spokane and Spokane Valley
        • Tri-Cities to Wallula
        • East Yakima
        • Lower Yakima Valley
        • Moxee Valley
        • George and West Grant County
        • Mattawa
        • Ellensburg
        • Wenatchee and East Wenatchee
        • Everett
        • North Seattle and Shoreline
        • South Seattle
        • South King County
        • Northeast Puyallup
        • South and East Tacoma
        • Vancouver

The report also warns that life expectancies in these communities may drop even further as the frequency of wildfire smoke events has been rising. The worry is in line with USDA research that points to wildfire seasons in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho that are projected to last longer with increased wildfire frequency, size, and total acres burned as a result of climate change.

“In Northwest forests, a warming climate coupled with more frequent wildfires will lead to a shift away from shade-tolerant, thin-barked, or fire-intolerant species such as western hemlock, subalpine fir, and Engelmann spruce,” the report said. “With warmer and drier conditions and more frequent disturbance, some locations will likely shift from forest to shrubland or grassland.”

Oregon wineries suing PacifiCorp for 2020 wildfires

After a Lane County Circuit Court judge in Oregon denied PacifiCorp’s motion to dismiss the negligence claims back in December, KOIN-TV reports that a Willamette Valley winery is wanting accountability from utility companies after the devastating 2020 Labor Day fires.

Brigadoon Vineyards filed in June 2023 with negligence charges against Pacific Power — and its parent company PacifiCorp. KGW-TV reported last week that several vineyards in the Pacific Northwest have sued the utility company, claiming that the utility company’s  powerlines started some of the 2020 Labor Day fires, which tainted grape crops at numerous wineries with smoke wafting over Northwest vineyards during and after the 2020 firestorm.

“It boggles the mind that they had an opportunity to turn off the power and they didn’t do it.”

Brigadoon argues in court that the Labor Day fires — the Santiam, Echo Mountain, Archie Creek Complex, 242, and South Obenchain  fires in western Oregon in 2020 — resulted from PacifiCorp’s electrical system failures and the utility’s decisons to not de-energize its powerlines — caused smoke to taint the winery’s grapes, which crippled wine production and the winery’s sales.  Multiple lawsuits filed by Willamette Valley vineyards and wineries against PacifiCorp, the parent company of electric utility Pacific Power, will proceed in court after several recent rulings. Attorneys for the winemakers plan to get other affected  businesses on board with the legal action.

Elk Cove Vineyards, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Brigadoon Winery thus far are just three of the affected winemakers to sue PacifiCorp individually. The complaints were filed separately but are all substantively similar  — they each allege that PacifiCorp equipment failures ignited several of the Labor Day fires of 2020, and that the smoke from those fires then damaged grapes, the grape harvest, and wine sales for the wineries. Complainants are seeking almost  $16 million in damages.

Oregon vineyards

KOBI5 recently reported that Elk Cove Vineyards, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Brigadoon Winery are just three of the winemakers to sue PacifiCorp so far, alleging that the power company’s lines, which they chose to not de-energize, started some of the 2020 fires that tainted or ruined the vineyards’ grape crops with heavy and longterm smoke.

Lawsuits from the 2020 Labor Day weekend fires have already cost PacifiCorp more than $73 million. Brigadoon Vineyards says PacifiCorp decided to not shut off power despite warnings from the National Weather Service and Oregon officials that a “historic red-flag-warning weather event would occur, producing catastrophic winds in excess of 50 mph, and hot dry air that was likely to cause electrical system failures that would cause dangerous fires.”

courtroom exhibit in the PacifiCorp trial

Brigadoon Vineyards says they were unable to sell wines to the public at their regular price — if at all –and the winery claims that it lost retail shelf spaces and also suffered reputational damage, which may take 5 to 7 years to recoup after the fires. Brigadoon is just one of several wineries, including Willamette Valley Vineyards, suing PacifiCorp for damages from the 2020 Labor Day fires.

Willamette Valley Vineyards
Willamette Valley Vineyards

“Our grapes were just in the process of ripening at that time. And so many of the growers in the wineries were not able to use significant amounts of fruit they had grown,” said Jim Bernau, the founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards.

Has the smoke made you forgetful?

Particulate matter (PM) is a chemical composition of smoke, including sulfates, carbon, nitrates, or mineral dusts. It stems from vehicle and industrial emissions and other fossil fuel burning, and researchers are now increasingly examining wildfires and the effects of longterm exposure to wildfire smoke that affect respiratory illnesses and other impacts to human health.

A subset of PM — fine particulate matter (PM2.5) — is especially dangerous to human health because it’s 30 times thinner than a human hair and can not only lodge in lung tissue but also cross into the brain after it’s inhaled.

NOAA smoke imageScientists from the University of Michigan have identified a link between agriculture and wildfire PM2.5 emissions and the onset of dementia among 27,857 adult Americans, with data drawn from the national Health and Retirement Study. Pollution estimates were based on the locations of the participants, who were older than 50 and did not have dementia at the outset. About 15 percent of the study participants developed dementia, but the rate of cognitive decline was significantly greater in the areas of high PM2.5 concentration between 1998 and 2016.

This joins a growing body of evidence forming a significant link between the microscopic toxins and dementia. The research was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

THANKS and a tip of the hardhat to Jay for this info.