In late August of 2013 thick and heavy smoke started to build and descend into the Reno area. I later came to learn it was from the “Rim fire burns”, west of Yosemite Nat’l Park.
I had moved to the Reno area some three years earlier from Olympia, WA. Three years prior to that, I had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Luckily, they had found the cancer early on, and after following a partial removal of my right lung and five years of cat scans, I was declared cancer free. My breathing was comfortable and relaxed.
As the smoke from the Rim Fire reached our region in Nevada, I began having a difficult time breathing. When I went out to the mailbox, my breathing became labored and even talking on the phone made me short of breath. This loss of my breathing capacity was very frightening and I became increasingly anxious. I eventually had a pulmonary function test which revealed that I didn’t have emphysema. Although greatly relieved, it didn’t help with my breathing!
As the smoke lingered day after day, week after week, I couldn’t sleep at night. I tried many medications to help me sleep, but they all had their negative, unpleasant side effects.
It became dismally hard for me to breathe and I was uncomfortable day and night.
The breathing effects were so overwhelming that on my darkest night of despair, I contemplated taking a large number of sleeping pills at all once…and be done with it. I will never forget those very dark nights and the depths of despair I experienced.
It took a long time, but eventually my breathing did return to a semblance of normalcy, but to this day, I remain affected by those smoky days that often occur in our region. And I sometimes fear that the intense smoke will come again and I’ll once again not be able to breathe.
It was a stunning blue Lake Tahoe morning. The sky was brilliant blue and sunshine sparkled on the clear blue waters of the lake. As my friend and I were hiking along a lake view trail, we could see a dark plume of smoke rising up over the mountains. To our dismay, smoke and haze began to fill the entire Tahoe basin. Driving home, I noticed that there were only a handful of cars on the road. No children were outside playing at the park or ball fields. The whole town was eerily quiet and still. I closed every window and door, but smoke began to seep inside my home and into my lungs. It made me feel sick to my stomach. The skies grew dark as if it were dusk in the middle of the afternoon, with a smoky haze so dense that the lake was no longer visible outside my window.
Throughout that first evening, my breathing grew shallow, my heart beat faster, and I grew anxious with every smoke-filled breath I took. It was a miserable night: my throat was sore, my eyes felt dry and scratchy, and the glands in my neck became swollen. There was a feeling of tightness in my chest, and I began coughing and then gasping for breath. I felt like I was literally suffocating. After two days and nights of suffering, I became sad and depressed. I was trapped and immobilized in my home, surrounded by a thick blanket of dark choking smoke. All I could think about was fleeing and getting far away from the sickening toxic air at the lake.
Local authorities on the news told residents to stay inside if they were smoke sensitive. I wondered if there was actually a human being alive that would not be sensitive to breathing in this choking toxic smoke. It was devastating to learn that the burn smoke was not coming from an uncontrolled wildfire, but rather a managed fire. The Rim Fire in California decimated nearly 365,000 acres of forest land – smoldering, burning, and spewing toxic smoke into the air day after day at Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada for nearly 6 months.
For years, local fire officials have advised our community that we must become “fire adapted,” but how is this possible if the human body is not “smoke adapted.”
Growing up as a child in the Reno Tahoe region, I remember vividly how consistently pristine air was.
It seemed like the Bluebird skies and days went on forever.
However, during the last 10 years I began to notice how much smoke there was from fires on a year round basis. It has gotten increasingly worse over the last several years, and I notice that on so many days and weeks at a time, the air I breathe now burns my lungs and eyes. Today, we breathe smoke day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, as smoke and haze have overtaken those pristine blue skies and fresh air of my youth.
It seems like day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out those pristine air bluebird days are taken from me by the burning that occurs in the Tahoe Basin or outside the basin.
Now I have come to understand that the Forest Service is actually letting many fires burn. I don’t think the public realizes this.
During the summer and winter months, the air is charged with haze and thick smoke and it makes it almost impossible to enjoy recreation in in Northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe. Some of my relatives have quit coming to the region all together because of the smoke in the summer. They tried to visit me and stay at Tahoe Donner for 2 years in a row to enjoy an August here, but they have had it with the burning.
I moved to northern Arizona from a state east of the Mississippi in 2004, because of health problems from asthma, complicated by allergies to molds, pollens, agricultural chemicals and industrial pollution. The air here at that time was clean and my health improved greatly and remained stable until the forest service began a program of massive prescribed burns and managed wildfires as their primary forest management technique.
In 2010, during the spring prescribed burn season, I developed a chronic cough which turned out to be from COPD in the form of lower lung emphysema. I have never smoked and did not have this disease before the forest service started putting smoke into the air in ever-increasing amounts.
With the start of the 4 Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI) in the Spring of 2015, which plans to burn 2 million acres of forest in northern Arizona every 10 years in repeating cycles, we suddenly found ourselves faced nearly every day of the year with large amounts of smoke from hundreds to thousands of acres of prescribed burns and managed wildfires in the surrounding forests. This smoke settles down on the plateau where I live from burns that occur at higher elevations.
Since I raise much of my own food and have a large organic garden and greenhouse, as well as chickens and ducks that need to be tended daily, I am unable to follow the Forest Service advice to simply “remain indoors” when there is smoke in the air. Despite anything I am able to do, my COPD is worsening more rapidly than expected and I have also developed vascular problems and edema, all of which flare markedly when the smoke pollution worsens and ease off when we have an occasional day when the air is clean.
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