Wild fires burning in Washington State and British Columbia have sent thousands of people to the emergency room – in Calgary and Lethbridge, Alberta. The smoke, which prompted a special air quality warning, has been thick for the last three days. It is dangerous for people with cardiopulmonary illnesses, like asthma, emphysema and hearts damaged from heart attacks. The smoke is even sickening healthy people, causing sore throat, cough and eye discomfort. The air quality index, usually a rating from 1-10, is 17; way off the charts. Hundreds of firefighters have been deployed to fight the fires in Washington and BC, from as far away as Australia. Australia is as far as ⅓the circumference of the Earth. For firefighters to be deployed from so far away is extraordinary. Firefighting efforts are described as one step forward, two steps back. As we’ve reported before, a controlled fire does not necessarily put a stop to the smoke. For one thing, smoke tends to hang around an area for a long time, even after the fire is gone. For another, a fire can burn long after it is contained, and with the drought and accompanying tinderbox conditions, it likely will. Containing a fire forces it to eventually consume all its fuel in a confined area, but it may take a long time for this to be accomplished. The smoke will be around for awhile to come.
To understand the scale of the smoke, consider the following: The fires have consumed more than 400 miles2 (643 km2.) That is an area the 1.3 times the size of New York City. Let’s say each tree burned is 10 feet (3m) tall. Now we have 4,000 miles3 (6,437 km3). If we assume a uniform density, and that the smoke has spread in a square bounded by Olympia, Washington as the southwest corner, and Calgary, Alberta as the northeast corner. That square would be filled with almost 40 feet (12m) high. While the assumptions made are not accurate, nor are they intended to be, this should provide a good sense of scale. While the smoke may well be 40 feet deep, a small fraction of each tree burned at a high temperature ends up as smoke. Clearly, a blanket of smoke as thick as every tree that has been burned would be fatal, so make sure the cloud is thin in your imagination. Several parts per million. You can still get a picture of just how much area is covered in smoke. The area of the square we described earlier is 8,000 miles2 (12,847km2) 8,000 miles is roughly ⅓ the circumference of the Earth, or about the distance, as you will recall, from Washington to Australia. The scale of these fires and the smoke that they are spitting out is staggering!