Monday, January 27, 2020
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Wildfires affect folks miles away in Montana Rockies

The Rocky Mountains are as awe-inspiring as any mountain ranges in the world, and in Montana, they can take your breath away just to look at them. Yet these days, they are covered in smoke that can turn the sky gray and cause the details of the mountains’ beauty to vanish into the haze.

In the Tobacco Root Mountains east of Butte, Mont. (Voxitatis)
In the Tobacco Root Mountains east of Butte, Mont. (Voxitatis) — additional photos

One of the most disheartening effects of climate change and warmer average temperatures on Earth is that a greater percentage of water evaporates from the soil. When that happens, the soil gets dry, and the risk of wildfires goes up.

That’s one theory anyway. It has also been shown, however, that water conserved by plants under high CO2 conditions compensates for much of the effect of warmer temperatures, retaining more water on land than predicted in commonly used drought assessments.

But whatever the root cause may be, dozens of wildfires are right now blazing around Montana, many of them about 20 miles from Missoula, and the smoke from those wildfires blocks our view of these glorious mountains.

Natural beauty being covered up by smoke, of course, is the least of our problems—firefighters, though well trained, risk their lives to bring the wildfires under control. A 29-year-old firefighter from California, a member of an elite hotshot crew, was killed earlier this month while battling a wildfire in this state, the Los Angeles Times reported. News reports say he died in a “tree-felling” accident while battling a fire caused by lightning near Three Forks.

Plus, the lives of people near the wildfires are threatened, and extra steps are necessary just to keep them safe. “We woke up to hazy, smoky skies this morning, and some of that smoke has mixed down in the last hour, causing local conditions to degrade,” said Sarah Coefield, Missoula City-County air quality specialist. Children, the elderly, and those with lung or heart disease have been advised to limit outdoor exercise or exertion.

The flare-up of one month-old wildfire today, near Helena, forced the evacuation of more than 500 homes this morning, the Associated Press reported, and devoured a large chunk of forest. The state is suffering what is certainly one of its worst droughts in history, with the 13 largest active fires in Montana having burned nearly 182 square miles (471 square kilometers) of land.

“State agencies are already working around the clock and across the state, and as we get closer to the total solar eclipse, we’ll need all resources available to keep communities, visitors, and property safe,” the AP quoted Gov Kate Brown as saying in a statement.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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