Three Rivers residents and visitors don’t need a newspaper article to tell them that California is essentially on fire. One look out the window will reveal the residual effect of all those fires: smoke.
On Tuesday, Aug. 7, Three Rivers’s air quality crept into the “hazardous” range by afternoon, according to the Real Time Air Quality Advisory Network’s monitor at Three Rivers Union School. That translates to “don’t even think about breathing when you’re outside because it’s extremely unhealthy and harmful.” On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 9, normally the time of day when the air is clearest, it was again deemed to be at Level 5-Hazardous.
There are 15 major fires currently burning in California that have destroyed homes and infrastructure and continue to threaten communities. More than 13,000 firefighters from California, 17 other states, Australia, and New Zealand are working the front lines of wildfires statewide.
This isn’t the first time, and certainly won’t be the last, that Three Rivers is under an umbrella of smoke. The Rough Fire of 2015, which burned over 150,000 acres in Sierra and Sequoia national forests and eventually made its way into Kings Canyon National Park, created smoky skies here from August to December when it was finally extinguished by winter rains but not before it became the 16th largest fire to occur in California since record keeping began in 1932.
We have entered the age of mega-fires. These out-of-control blazes now occur with greater frequency and severity and are seemingly unstoppable. They occur earlier in the year than what was previously considered “fire season,” or later, such as last year’s destructive fires in December.
A major problem is the influx of people moving to the “wildland-urban interface,” which are cities butting up against undeveloped places. And it’s humans that cause the majority of these fires. In addition, human-caused global warming is also fueling the fires that are burning their way into the record books at alarming rates.
It gets political— President Donald Trump last week approved a federal disaster declaration requested by Governor Jerry Brown for the fires, which authorizes FEMA to provide assistance. But Trump also created confusion via his Twitter feed. He intimated that there is a lack of water available in California to fight these fires.
But he confused a long-running debate about how the state should allocate water for farmers, cities, fish, and wildlife.
Trump’s Sunday, Aug. 5, tweet said, “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!”
Trump’s Monday tweet: “Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Can be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of Water – Nice! Fast Federal govt. approvals.”
According to state officials and firefighting experts, there is nothing California water policy has done that makes these fires worse or more difficult to fight. These fires have been brought on by years of drought, an overgrowth of vegetation, a previous policy of fire suppression, and sustained periods of hot, dry weather. A spokesman for Cal Fire said California has experienced no water shortages during what’s now been nearly a month of firefighting.
Mendocino Complex Fire— This fire in the northern part of California doubled in size within a few days and surpassed last year’s Thomas Fire to become the largest fire in modern state history.
Ferguson Fire— This fire is the main cause of smoke in Three Rivers and it continues to plague Mariposa County, devastating the summer tourist industry there. It has entered into Yosemite National Park, where much of the park is closed indefinitely, disrupting an untold number of vacations.
The only area of the park that is open is Tioga Road from Tioga Pass to White Wolf, accessible only from the Sierra’s east side. Most of the trails and campgrounds along this route are also open, including the Tuolumne Meadows Campground. Visitor services along Tioga Road, including the High Sierra Camps and the Tuolumne Meadows Store, are open.
Firefighters made progress on the Ferguson Fire this week. As of Thursday, Aug. 9, the fire had been burning 28 days and was nearing 100,000 acres, but it is now 79 percent or more contained, a sure sign that firefighters will ultimately win this battle.
A cautionary tale— Three Rivers, along with Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, are receiving a lot of the turned-away Yosemite visitors. Lodging and campgrounds are full here; lines at both park entrances consist of an hour wait or more during peak periods.
In Sequoia-Kings Canyon and neighboring Giant Sequoia National Monument, there are fire restrictions in effect that include where campfires and barbecues are allowed and where they are not. There are areas where smoking a cigarette is not allowed. And backpackers and other backcountry users also have constraints on where campfires can occur. All visitors are responsible for knowing these regulations as they apply to them.
In Three Rivers, precautions need to be taken this time of year to ensure a human-caused wildfire does not occur. Avoid having any type of open flame outside, monitor usage of internal combustion engines, never park a vehicle in dry grass, and dispose of cigarette butts in an ashtray.
Fine particulate matter levels from state wildfires have caused the air to be unhealthy or even, at times, hazardous.
“Community members should stay indoors and avoid exerting themselves,” said Dr. Karen Haught, Tulare County public health officer. “Even healthy people may begin experiencing unhealthy symptoms due to wildfire smoke.”
Smoke can irritate the eyes and respiratory system, cause coughing, chest pain, irritated sinuses and headaches, and trigger asthma attacks. Older adults and children are more likely to be affected by smoke and its associated health threats.
If symptoms worsen, seek medical attention. Those with chronic heart and lung diseases are at increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
If the odor of smoke is in the air, move inside to an air-conditioned environment. Outdoor activities should be avoided.
The best way to limit smoke is to keep windows and doors closed. Use the air conditioner. If an air-conditioning unit is unavailable, seek relief at a local cooling center (in Three Rivers, the designated cooling center is the library during regular business hours).