We’ll Have to Learn to Live With Smoke. Here’s Why.

There’s a huge fire debt in the West that must be paid off, experts say, either through controlled burns or out-of-control blazes. Either way, that means smoke.

PORTLAND, Ore. — For a full week this month, my family did not leave our house here in this famously outdoorsy city. At times, smoke from the state’s huge wildfires made it hard to see to the end of the block. Sometimes, we could barely see across the street.

The smoke was extreme, yes. But it was also a glimpse of the future. “We’re not going to get off of this wildfire train anytime soon,” said Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “The big question is, how do we want our smoke?”

Once upon a time, smoke was simply part of life in the West. Many ecosystems evolved to tolerate and even depend on fire, which occurred regularly because of lightning, Native American burning practices, and later, settlers. These blazes were often small. In the early 20th century, however, the U.S. government resolved to stamp out wildfires. And for a while, it succeeded, ushering the country through decades of anomalously fire-free, smoke-free summers. Read more.