I love the arid, mountain landscapes of the West. I love the native wildflower and animal species that live in mountain ecosystems. I love the aridity of the desert. I love its total lack of humidity and 100+ degree heat.
But with the aridity of the western landscape comes fire season with its forest fires and wildfires.
Last summer there were forest fires burning in Idaho and two adjoining states at around the same time. The smoke from all of them was blowing down into Boise. For weeks, the city was ensconced in a hazy layer of burning, lung-clogging smoke.
This is normal.
It’s like that in every state in the West.
When I lived in Colorado, part of every summer involved inhaling smoke from forest fires blowing down into the city of Boulder.
So on Tuesday, when a massive, dark cloud of smoke started billowing up over the city of Boise like some terrifying, steroidal thunderhead, I wasn’t surprised the local NPR station was nonchalant about it. “That dark cloud on the horizon is smoke from a wildfire,” I heard the announcer say. Shit, I thought, it’s that time of year again.
But the cloud of smoke was imposing enough that I rushed to Camel’s Back Park and hiked to the top of a foothill to get a good view.
The smoke was eerily imposing.
It had burned 2,500 acres at that point. All I could think was if that smoke blows into Boise, it’s going to exacerbate my asthma.
By today (Thursday), the smoke had blown down into Boise, then moved south to hover over the Owyhees, an arid mountain range that stretches into eastern Oregon and northern Nevada, giving a hazy, yellow-gray tinge to the horizon.
It’s just another day in the West.
This will be forgotten. A week from now, there will be another wildfire or forest fire blowing smoke into the city of Boise. When it is over, we will forget it too.
While I snapped photos of the horizon, I began to get a headache. The type of pounding, heat headache one only gets in the desert.
It’s 101 degrees today, with a tiny bit of wind and no humidity. The foothills are covered in hollow, wheat-colored grasses. They lay stiff like hair and blow in the breeze, curling out from their dry centers like a kind of vortex.
The only green thing growing is an occasional patch of curlycup gumweed, a native wildflower adapted to the desert climate.
It reminds me of a day last summer when I went hiking in extreme heat like this. It was 103 degrees. I had waited till 6 in the evening in the hope it would cool off.
Down I hiked into a golden bowl of sagebrush-covered foothills.
The heat was overwhelming. I began to understand why people plant trees even in the desert. You just need something to stand under. I crouched down behind an enormous bush of sagebrush. In the half-light of its shadow, there was almost a sense of relief.
The Western landscape is massive. Everything about it is designed to make you small in comparison. The rippling atmospheric and geometric structures on the horizon. The endless seas of juniper or sagebrush. The breathing sky that is blue usually like something obscene. Even the heat is a kind of piercing dwarfing your presence. Even this makes you small in comparison.
On top of the foothill, I finished snapping photos of the smoke-yellowed horizon. Then I went down into the city. The lush, tree-lined streets of Boise were being watered perpetually by sprinklers to give a semblance of artificial greenness in a sea of yellow, tinder-dry grasses and sagebrush.
Watering our yards and landscaping in the desert in a state that often has critically low water levels is abnormal too. But it’s no less normal to us now than how perpetual the forest fires and wildfires have become through climate change and the introduction of fire-prone, invasive plant species like cheatgrass.
Perhaps there is a lesson in there somewhere. But as I walked into the streets of Boise, buckling under the glimmer of heat exhaustion, I simply couldn’t make it take shape in my mind.