The acrid smell of hot tar: life in a US west stricken by wildfires and heatwaves | Michelle Nijhuis

The acrid smell of hot tar: life in a US west stricken by wildfires and heatwaves | Michelle Nijhuis

The 2021 fire season is predicted to be among the worst – which is saying something, because last year’s burned 10.5m acres and killed at least 43 people

On the first day of summer, I woke up to the acrid smell of hot tar. Even before my sleepy brain could name the source, my body tensed with anxiety: wildfire season was underway. Given the deepening drought and record-setting heat across most of the American west, this year’s fire season is widely predicted to be among the worst in recent memory – which is saying something, because last year’s was grotesque.

More than 10.5m acres burned across the region in 2020, the highest annual total since accurate records began nearly 40 years ago. At least 43 people died as a direct result of the flames, and researchers estimate that thousands more died from the effects of sustained smoke inhalation. Entire neighborhoods were flattened, and evacuations lasted weeks, accelerating the spread of the coronavirus. In rural Washington state, where I live, my neighbors and I were trapped inside for days by smoke so thick we could barely see across the street.

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