los angeles pollution
Los Angeles skyline with palm trees in the foreground. Photo credit: J Dennis / Shutterstock

By Marcia Wolfe, Biology/Ecology Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

My eyes feel dry. Every morning I have multiple, roof blowing-off sneezes from the smoke. The air is grey/blue, clear down to the road surface, as far as we can see, which is not very far. The smoke is not as dense as some weeks ago, but it is still thick. We cannot see the foothills around the edges of town and the valley, let alone view any of our beautiful surrounding mountains in the southern Sierra Nevada, San Emidio, Los Padres or coast ranges.

My truck in the driveway is covered with dirt and soot, and it’s hundreds of miles away from most of the fires. You do not even want to know what you are inhaling and what the adverse impacts of those microscopic soot and chemical ash particles are on your lungs and body (which may include both short term and long term, direct and indirect effects)! Isn’t there enough to worry about with the Covid-19 pandemic still in effect and the regular flu season rapidly approaching? In wildlife populations, previously unknown diseases or diseases new to a species can be what causes wildlife population extinctions. These same processes can also affect mankind.

When I first moved here many moons ago, we had thick fog off and on throughout much of the winter combined with poor air quality. Over time, our community managed to improve our air quality some, I thought. But now, that is something to think about. What we do may not matter because currently our extremely poor air quality is unrelated specifically to what is going on in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s not our fault. We (man) did not do it! (That is except for the arson fire started in Los Angeles County, from which we receive some smoke, depending upon the high- and low-pressure systems and winds. The arsonist has been caught, but that is not enough. Nothing can compensate for huge widespread fires.) Based on the news outlets, the horrific fires in northern California were apparently caused by thousands–as high as 17,000–dry lightning strikes, which are without simultaneous rainstorms.

As of today, over 3.2 million acres burned (Schuster Sep 14, 2020 7:40 am PT) to the ground in California alone. That does not count the acreages burned in Oregon, Washington, and other states. The acreage burned is greater than that in the entire state of Rhode Island (almost 3 times greater). If learning about the loss of 30 billion birds over the last 50 years did not give you the feeling the world is changing and, moreover, the pandemic imparting the feeling that the world is changing, the fires definitely show the changing world.

First, most of our oxygen comes from plants. This occurs through photosynthesis in every living green plant, ranging from the tiniest blue green algae and phytoplankton in the oceans to other algae in lakes and streams. Phytoplankton produce about half of the world’s oxygen supply, and terrestrial green plants supply the other half. Plants are critically important.

Terrestrial plants also create the habitats and food for most birds and wildlife. They create the rangelands where our cattle, sheep and other livestock live and graze, as well as our deer, elk, and wild turkeys! Much of our food comes from human cultivated plants, of which we produce massive amounts for the whole world.

All plants help maintain good soil quality and texture. They also help to create and ensure percolation pathways for the water that filters through them to recharge our groundwater. The vegetation also filters the water before it gets to the groundwater. Vegetation slows storm runoff, enabling it to leach into the soil and down to the groundwater, before just rapidly running completely offsite downstream.

Forests naturally burn from time to time, as fires are caused by dry lightning and other causes. But about 75 years ago, Smokey Bear hit the scene. He helped let people know to be careful and to not cause forest fires from camping, cigarettes, or carelessness. But he did it so well that now when there were natural fires, there was so much fuel present they simply roared and were much worse than they may have been if nature had been allowed to take its course. Fire is a natural part of our overall forest ecosystems, which includes regularly burning acreage, old growth forests and understories (shrubs, grasses and wildflowers). Since experiencing hotter fires related to the Smokey Bear message, some have opted to use controlled burns. Controlled burns may help to result in more natural forest habitats, helping them not burn so fiercely because of build up of deep duff, leaves and trees. However, it has long been a controversial management issue and controlled burns are not used everywhere. In addition, much of the acreage burned is not forest, but is comprised of shrub and grasslands. Over time, the extent of these large fires, which still have not been controlled yet for the large part, will extensively change the environment in those areas for many years to come, and that includes both vegetation and wildlife. Wildlife will experience huge losses of some species. Others will be harmed by the immediate lack of food or forage. Birds will move if they can, but the speed and extent to which they return and recover their population sizes remain to be learned. The forests take many years to regrow since different species have different rates of restoration. As is common with wildlife, the species most successful in disturbed habitats, are not always the same species that ultimately inhabit an area.

If in reading this you are thinking, “Who cares? The effects of the fires do not impact me because that is all up north.” Do not fool yourself. We (humans) are interconnected with all aspects of the environment, including the air, water, soils, birds, and wildlife! For a long time to come, the environment is going to be different after the fires are finally controlled.