By Henry Ehrlich
For asthmatics, a log fire on a cold night is a dangerous potential trigger. So what are we to make of the dangers described in Caroline Moassessi’s brave-but-harrowing account of living downwind from the Yosemite forest fire? At least in a fireplace, most of the smoke goes up the chimney instead of blotting out the sun 200 miles away for a population of 500,000 in a city and environs, making mountains disappear from view, and shutting down the family’s solar panels. The vision of taking the kids out for yoghurt when the pollution levels drop to moderate levels sounds like a dystopian sitcom—“Blade Runner” meets “The Brady Bunch.”
This is not the first environmental catastrophe to befall Reno, a city that benefited from the mining boom after the discovery of silver in nearby Virginia City, which lasted from 1859 till the early 20th century. Caroline tells me it left regional ground water permanently polluted with arsenic. The city’s drinking water now comes from the Truckee River, which also supplies the power that picked up the slack for the failure of the solar array. Reno later filled part of the economic void left by the exhaustion of the Comstock Lode by becoming a destination for people seeking quickie divorces—including Betty Draper of “Mad Men”–who filled their time waiting to meet the temporary residency requirements by gambling (and was in fact the gambling capital of Nevada until 1950 when it was eclipsed by Las Vegas). At least the toxic fallout from those thousands of busted marriages was not the kind that the EPA has to worry about. Still, the current crisis does raise a host of environmental issues. The same drought that turned a single hunter’s illegal fire into a conflagration is also affecting the mountain snowfall that has provided drinking water for cities on both sides of the Sierra range.
But enough about the environment. What about people’s health? What will be the long-term impact on the residents of Reno? The only personal benchmark I have is smoldering fires of the World Trade Center in 2001, which also released asbestos and other building materials that I smelled for weeks from four miles away. It has resulted in thousands of illnesses, and the health of thousands more is still being monitored. Yosemite was “only” a forest fire, although the smoke is undoubtedly laced with firefighting chemicals, but wood smoke isn’t safe regardless (as our previous guest writer Dr. Melinda Rathkpf told us in her piece about Alaska), and will surely result in plenty of COPD and more asthma. We know that “black carbon” can turn non-asthmatics into asthmatics by penetrating lung mucosa and allowing previously harmless substances to become allergens. We also know that a grandmother’s smoking can cause asthma in her grandchildren. We have to consider what happens not only to lungs, but hearts and minds as well they are bombarded relentlessly over many weeks.