The New Normal

Are smoky skies and increased fire seasons a sign of things to come?

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

For those who live in and visit North Idaho, clean air and natural beauty often top the list for why they’ve chosen this region. Small business owners rely on the steady stream of tourist dollars as more and more people discover this once-kept secret. The summer tourist season often provides an economic safety net to helps retailers through the tough shoulder seasons.

In recent years, however, that connection to the great outdoors and the economic boost that accompanies it has been hampered by one pervasive annoyance; smoky skies during the peak of increasingly more severe fire seasons.

As air quality indexes read over 300 last week – well into the “Hazardous” range – the natural beauty that tourists flock to see was veiled behind a thick layer of wildfire smoke containing fine particulate matter that, when inhaled, could pose threats to the cardiopulmonary system, especially in the elderly and infirm. 

Last year on Labor Day, Sandpoint had the worst air quality in the nation with an air quality index of 418 (the scale only goes to 500). Smoke was also prevalent the two fire seasons before, with varying degrees of severity.

As the smoke returns, more and more Sandpoint locals are asking, “Is this normal? Was it like this when we were younger?”

If these trends continue, how will increasingly more common smoky skies during the height of tourist season impact our local economy?

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

To understand the elements that contribute to a more severe fire season, one must look first at the factors that contribute to higher fuel loads in our National Forests.

Fire Management Officer Matt Butler with the Priest Lake, Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint Ranger Districts said a higher snow pack isn’t the only driver that reduces fire potential.

“What really drives it is spring and summer precipitation and temperatures,” Butler said. “If you have a high snow pack and cooler spring, a lot more snow will remain at higher elevations longer.”

However, Butler said even with a higher snow pack – the past two seasons were measured at 140 percent of normal – a wet spring can interfere with windows to conduct prescribed burns, which reduce fuel loads in the forests.

“Last year in April, just like this year, it was wet and rainy,” Butler said. “We couldn’t do prescribed burning because it was too wet to burn. By the end of May, it was too dry to burn.”

While wildfire season has always been an issue in the Inland Northwest, what has changed is the length and severity of the season, Butler said.

“In the last 20 years, fire season has increased by 78 days versus what it was 20 years ago,” he said. “They’re longer seasons, and they’re a little more extreme. Whether it’s climate change or a pattern, people can call it what they want, but we’re seeing a shift.”

What’s in the smoke?

Wildfire smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from breathing smoke is from the fine particles, referred to as Particulate Matter. PM2.5 refers to tiny particles in the air that are 2.5 microns or less in width, which measures roughly 30 times smaller than that of a human hair.

When breathed, these microscopic particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, potentially causing a range of health problems from burning eyes and runny noses to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases.

Those most at risk when air quality takes a dive are people with cardiopulmonary diseases, older adults, those with diabetes, pregnant women and younger children.

While the best defense against breathing in the fine particulate matter is to limit exposure to the outdoors during low-air-quality periods, having a supply of N-95 or P-100 masks on hand is a good idea during fire season. Surgical masks and bandannas are not effective at filtering these fine particles from entering your lungs.

The air quality index (AQI) ranges from 0 to 500, with the higher the number indicating a greater level of air pollution and health concern. AQI is calculated for four major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. 

The scale is divided into six categories: 0-50 (Good), 51-100 (Moderate), 101-150 (Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups), 151-200 (Unhealthy), 201-300 (Very Unhealthy), 301-500 (Hazardous). When the AQI measures over 200, events like school sports practices and outdoor gatherings are usually canceled. When it spikes over 300 into the “Hazardous” range like it did in Sandpoint last weekend, people are warned to stay indoors, as the entire population is more likely to be affected by serious health effects.

A larger issue

The prevalence of smoky skies and increased fuel loads isn’t unique to North Idaho. Most of the smoke in the air over Sandpoint comes from fires burning in British Columbia, Washington and Montana. The return of hazardous AQIs is shared by a large section of North America, especially this season with record-setting fires in California. 

The issue has become so prevalent that some state tourism bureaus have conducted studies to find out what impact the smoky air, forest fires and road closures may have on their respective tourism economies.

Norma Nickerson, the director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana in Missoula, recently published a paper with Jeremy Sage that touched on that very subject.

Last year, almost 1.3 million acres burned in Montana causing Gov. Steve Bullock to declare a state of emergency in early September. The combination of extreme firefighting costs and lower than expected revenues generated a $200 million shortfall with the state government.

To understand how the tourist economy was affected, Nickerson and Sage sent a survey to over 4,000 adults in late 2017 who were identified as nonresidents that had visited or planned to visit Montana.

Of the 1,203 that responded to the survey, 7 percent indicated that they had to change where they visited in Montana because of the smoke, and 10 percent were unable to take part in their desired activities at their desired locations. Another 7 percent indicated that they had shortened their stay in Montana due to the smoke or fires.

Of those individuals who did not travel to Montana during the summer of 2017, 9 percent indicated they had planned to visit the state but canceled due to the smoke or fire in their planned visiting area. For every 100 visitors that did come to Montana during this period, 8.6 individuals canceled their trip.

Less visitors translates into less potential revenue, but Nickerson said tracking something as complex as the tourist economy is often difficult.

“It’s not one industry and therefore it is difficult to get a handle on all the components of the industry,” she said. “Obviously it is made up of accommodations, restaurants, transportation and guided activities. But it also includes retail, grocery stores, admissions, entry fees, licenses, permits, vehicle repairs, gambling, services such as haircuts and banking and the like.”

She pointed to a recent study from the Oregon Tourism Commission which looked at the same issue; how the smoky skies and wildfires have impacted Oregon’s state and local economies.

Conducted in March 2018, the report bore some alarming takeaways. Smoke from 1.2 million acres of wildfire during the 2017 season caused 451 unique unhealthy air quality readings across Oregon, a 65 percent increase over the highest number of readings from 2000 to 2016.

The report estimated that $51.1 million in lost revenue statewide was a direct result of smoke and fire activity, of which employees and working proprietors lost $16 million in earnings. 

Impacts were felt most strongly by the food and beverage service ($13.9 million), lodging ($13.5 million), followed by retail businesses ($3.9 million).

Nearly half of the survey respondents believe the 2018 season may see a decline in visitation due to the possible perception that fire damage from 2017 has diminished their community’s appeal to visitors.

On the home front

While Montana and Oregon’s tourism bureaus have conducted extensive studies directly monitoring the economic impact of smoky skies on tourism, Idaho’s Department of Commerce has no data collected yet to ascertain the impact on the home front.

“It’s not to say we aren’t interested in those numbers,” said Matt Borud, marketing and innovation officer for Idaho Department of Commerce. “It’s just a resource question. We have one of the smaller state tourism projects in the country. Some of these projects can be pricey.”

However, Borud noted, Idaho has shown a double-digit increase in tourism numbers over the last three fiscal years. This year’s fiscal year showed an increase of over 11 percent from 2017, which showed an increase of 12.4 percent from 2016, which increased 13.4 percent from fiscal year 2015. The measurement came as a result of studying the lodging tax on Idaho hotels, which mostly indicates out of state travelers.

“These are pretty good stretches of growth,” Borud said. “At a national level, we’re seeing 7, 8 percent growth coming up out of the recession. … If you’re not growing at around that 9-percent rate, you’re probably behind the curve. We’ve been nicely in front of that in the last few years.”

With such an increase in tourist dollars coming in, the trend for skies to remain smoky for days on end has the potential to negatively impact Idaho’s economies on a local level.

When Montana Shakespeare in the Park arrived in Sandpoint last weekend for their annual outdoor production – this year it was “Othello” – normally 1,200 to 1,500 people turn out for the free performance. This year, due to an air quality index ranging from “Very Unhealthy” to “Hazardous,” only a third of the expected number showed.

“We did better than I thought,” said Christine Holbert, owner of Lost Horse Press which hosts and sponsors the traveling troupe every year in Sandpoint. “We had 475 people in the audience. That’s down from the 1,200 we usually have, but considering how terrible it was yesterday, I feel lucky to have had that many.”

Holbert said she felt bad for the performers and attendees, many of whom wore masks, because their scheduled date in Sandpoint continues to coincide with smoky skies. She discussed the potential to switch dates with organizers, so the performance would take place before or after the fire season.

“I told them, ‘You’ve been here for four years now and every single year we’ve had smoke,’” Holbert said. 

But the traveling Shakespeare troupe has traveled throughout rural communities across Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming for over 40 years, arriving in each community the same dates each year. To change schedules would mean to upset long held anchor points in dozens of communities across the west.

“These are tiny towns where they’ll have the play on the third weekend in June every year for 40 years,” said Holbert. “They’ll often build some kind of other event or festival around the Shakespeare show, so it’s difficult to change.”

Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce president Kate McAlister said the smoke was on every visitor’s mind last week. 

“We get a tremendous amount of summer visitors here,” McAlister said. “Every one of them last week was asking where they can get out of the smoke.”

McAlister, like Holbert, said one real impact the smoke might have on Sandpoint is the loss of events due to cancellation or low attendance.

“Events are very important to our small town,” she said. “Last year, when they had to cancel the soccer tournament (due to hazardous air quality), one business lost $10,000. Another lost $7,000. The next weekend was our Scenic Half Marathon, which would’ve been a $20,000 hit for the Chamber if we had to cancel. Luckily we didn’t.”

To switch event dates, McAlister said, is often difficult.

“What most people don’t understand is, when an event comes off seamlessly, that means it’s really difficult behind the scenes,” she said. “To move some of these bigger events might be a logistical nightmare. We have 150 nonprofits. To find new dates to move their events would be a problem. … The reality is, for those of us who rely on events and tourism, it really is a hit to the economy.”

Local hoteliers have also noticed the impact of the smoke in terms of cancellations.

“There’s definitely been lots of cancellations,” said Sonja Ogden of the Quality Inn. “A few people have actually gone home early because of it, just because they come for the family to go out on the lake and all that, and then it’s just too much.”

Naomi Eisler at the Days Inn agreed: “Today, in fact, half of the people that were going to come in canceled. It’s been worse this week, just because people that reserved rooms to come vacation in our beautiful area just don’t want to be here right now. Their reaction is wondering how close the fires are just because of how thick the smoke is.”

“I don’t think it’s really affected the business,” said Taunee Holzhauser at Holiday Inn. “People are still traveling and vacationing, they’re just staying inside. We’re still booked up and have people coming in.”

“As of right now, we’re showing a dip of about 10 percent (in August revenue) from last year, so there’s definitely less people coming through,” said Patrick Lucas at Hotel Ruby. “Guests ask about the fires, if we have any ideas of when (the smoke) might let up, and they really want information about how close the fires are.”

Both the Festival at Sandpoint and the Bonner County Fair were well attended, thanks to fortunate timing.

“All the smoke came in literally right after the fair,” said Darcy Smith, fairgrounds and facility director. “We have a horse show this coming weekend, so we hope that will be well attended. The Draft Horse show was canceled last year because of the smoke, but they re-did it this past July.”

Linda Mitchell, owner of Lake Pend Oreille Cruises which provides tours of various parts of the lake in the 43-foot Shawnodese, said she’s seen the impacts but most people are soldiering on.

“It definitely has had an impact in terms of cancellations, but I’m still getting reservations,” Mitchell said. “If people are here, there are still things to see on the lake. We have eagle-watching cruises, which go along the shoreline, and a lot of them are here and just don’t want to be cooped up in their hotel room or vacation rentals. They want to get out and do things.”

Mitchell said there is one silver lining to the smoke: spectacular sunsets.

“Our sunset cruises have been pretty popular,” she said.

Support in Washington, D.C.

Without data like Montana and Oregon, it’s hard to say the exact impacts that smoke has caused on our local economies, most agree that it does translate into lost potential revenue in some form or fashion. But Fire Management Officer Butler said the problem of wildfire funding and staffing issues have also affected the severity of the season.

“One of the things we’re seeing is, with fire seasons being longer and more severe,” Butler said, “we’re having to send our crews to other places in the country to support them. Our crews are here less. … Fifteen or 20 years ago, we had crews stationed here in summer doing fuel (reduction) work, but now they’re tied up fighting fires and supporting others.”

The funding issue has caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

Senator Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced legislation in June along with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon in response to the federal government failing to fund wildfire suppression like it does with any number of other natural disasters that impact communities.

The legislation addresses “fire borrowing,” which takes money from other priorities like trail or forest maintenance and spending it instead on fire suppression.

“This has been a bipartisan bill from the outset,” Crapo said. “Thanks to the input of other groups like the Nature Conservatory, our legislation will end the dangerous and debilitating practice of fire borrowing, which robbed funds from other, important functions of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Now, we will respond to wildfires and treat them as we do other catastrophic disasters.”

Butler said the legislation would help shift fire suppression money back into their budget to reduce fuels on the forest floor, instead of tying it up into fighting more and more severe fires.

“I don’t think it’s quite all the way there, but they’re making some inroads,” he said.

The elephant in the room

According to the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information, last April marked the 400th consecutive month with global temperatures exceeding the 20th century average. It’s agreed that a warming trend is taking place, and that the trend has contributed to increased fire activity, longer lasting seasons and more severe burns. 

What’s not agreed is the cause of this warming trend. Is this an above-average cycle, or the effects of human caused climate change? Often merely asking the question steers the discussion into a political quagmire, with climate change deniers taking solace from elected officials all the way up to the president.

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” President Donald Trump tweeted before the 2016 election. He has also referred to climate change as a “hoax” several times.

While there is no evidence to suggest a Chinese-led hoax, scientific data continues to support the idea that our climate is warming and that humans are contributing to this trend, which in turn has helped contribute to longer, more severe fire seasons and the annual return of smoky skies in August and September.

Fire Management Officer Butler said no matter what you call it, it’s happening and it remains a difficult problem to overcome.

“I’ve done this for 32 years, fighting fires, 30 in North Idaho, and we don’t remember smoke coming in like this,” Butler said. “We remember days where it would roll in and move out, but this pattern we’ve been in the last few years, a lot of us in our careers have not seen it like the last few years.”

Ben Olson is the co-owner and publisher of the Sandpoint Reader.

McCalee Cain contributed to the reporting of this article.

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