Wildfire smoke isn't just a West Coast phenomenon anymore

Inspire Clean Energy

Aug 10, 2023

6 min read

category: Climate Change In The News

The Northeast U.S. has in recent years seen milky skies spurred by raging wildfires — a life-altering spectacle that people on the West Coast have come to view as inevitable. This spring, that growing reality came earlier than the typical summer timeline when Canadian wildfires resulted in a smoky haze blanketing some of America’s most populous areas, including New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. Isolated events aside, weather patterns and a warming climate have exacerbated wildfire risk and strength, leading to some of the worst air quality on record in the U.S. As this phenomenon becomes more common—with extended fire seasons and other factors intensifying their impact—people should consider switching to a clean energy provider. 

Why wildfires are getting worse

The West Coast is used to wildfires and the associated human habits: a rush to buy air purifiers if you don’t already own them, plus best practices for staying indoors and protecting yourself outdoors if you must. While fires are “an important part of life in the American west,” per The Guardian, they’re now “starting earlier, burning more intensely, and scorching swaths of land larger than ever before.” Due at least in part to rising global temperatures, the typical fire season out West is no longer confined to July through November. With smoke billowing across the continent and a national border, this trend has huge implications for public health and the environment. 

Seared in the public memory for many are the 2020 West Coast wildfires—which began through lightning strikes and traveled east. The smoke reached the other side of the country through the jet stream, or a fast and narrow air current, riding winds from as far as northern California to Baltimore. During that event, the smoke blocked the sun from providing warmth despite a lack of clouds, creating bizarre, unseasonable weather and dangerous air quality conditions. Like the air pollution from the 2023 Canadian wildfires, this event brought with it risks to health and had the potential to seep into people’s homes.

How wildfires impact health and damage the planet

Breathing in smoke is toxic, and East Coasters are less primed to protect themselves than their West Coast counterparts for whom wildfire smoke is a more common occurrence. The size of particle pollution varies depending on the fineness and coarseness of the burned debris. Smaller particles can enter the lungs while bigger particles can still bother the eyes, nose, and throat, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA warns that breathing in these particles can lead to lung and heart problems, and most severely impact people with preexisting diseases, people with diabetes, seniors, and children. 

As the planet warms and sees record-breaking heat waves and prolonged droughts, fires are intensifying and even further emitting greenhouse gasses, creating risky positive feedback loops. As the U.S. faces a wildfire crisis, government officials have attempted to funnel funding toward prevention and risk reduction with outcomes that aren’t immediately clear. Public attention has also shifted toward the role of land managers, and politicians also point to the concept as a solution to the wildfire crisis. But many land managers are under-resourced and under-staffed to execute what’s been viewed as the most obvious answer: more prescribed burns. Plus, it appears too late to reverse the impact of drought, vegetation growth in forests, and the more narrow prescribed burn strategy. Humans cause forest fires in more direct ways, too, including by leaving campfires unattended, negligently discarding cigarettes, using equipment that may malfunction and intentionally committing arson, per the National Park Service. 

Why you should consider clean energy

While switching to a clean energy provider won't directly address the smoke from Canadian wildfires, it helps tackle the broader issue of climate change. It can contribute to a cleaner, healthier environment while reducing the long-term risk and impact of wildfires. Investing in technologies that improve air quality and enhance smoke detection and filtration systems can provide more immediate relief during wildfire events.

Choosing clean energy providers over traditional energy sources like coal and oil helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal power emit significantly less carbon dioxide—contributing less to climate change. They also reduce harmful emissions like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other particulate matter. Cleaner air is a win in a world where wildfires are increasing air pollution.

Finally, every person who switches to clean energy supports the growth and development of its infrastructure. If demand rises, investment in wind farms, solar installations, and other clean energy projects could follow. That cycle can create job opportunities, inject local economies with more life, and underscore a need for tech advancement in the space.

What wildfires cost 

Beyond health, the costs of excessive wildfire smoke are steep. They can prompt evacuations, disrupting people’s lives and ability to do their work. As for emergency response and firefighting, the costs can be substantial including personnel, equipment, aircraft, and other infrastructure to protect public safety. Wildfires can also damage or destroy critical infrastructure, from roads to power lines, creating a nightmare situation for government agencies and utilities.

As for social and other economic costs, wildfires can deter outdoor tourism and entertainment or sporting events, hurting businesses that rely on travel and ticketed events including hotels, restaurants, and recreational facilities. Fires can directly damage crops and hurt livestock health as well as damage timber and other forest products; farmers, ranchers, and forest industry workers take a hit. 

How eastern seaboard states are responding

Wildfires aren’t going away, so eastern seaboard states need to be prepared. They can focus on early warning systems, by investing in fire detection technologies, satellite monitoring and weather forecasting, commanding even more precise information about potential wildfire threats. They should have contingency plans in place that outline coordination and communication protocols for a wildfire-related crisis. They can also educate the public and emergency response personnel, firefighters and others on fire management, evacuation procedures and community awareness. 

Like with other crises, states can form mutual aid agreements to strengthen their firefighting capabilities.They can also take a look at infrastructure, evaluating and reinforcing power lines, communication networks and water supply systems that are most vulnerable to blazes. All of those systems should undergo regular inspections.

Communities dealing with wildfires directly or the collateral effects are strongest when working together and fostering collaboration, exchanging best practices and lessons learned from wildfires. The U.S. should invest in research and innovation to understand wildfire behavior and develop mitigation strategies, and investing in renewable energy is one small but significant step.

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