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Photo by E. Wilde: Ute Mountain through the smoky haze on July 12, at 7:30pm

Unrecognized Health Hazard: Toxic Wildfire Smoke

It’s been stunning to see the sun almost turn blood red during the daytime, something we in northern Taos County have experienced this past summer. Our beautiful views of our favorite mountains surrounding us was like peering through a dirty lace tablecloth—they were just barely visible at times. And it’s equally stunning to make the connection that the smoke we’ve had to deal with in our normally pristine air is from as far away as California!

Wildfire smoke can travel long distances—hundreds of thousands of miles—crossing what we think of as borders, and affects everyone regardless of race or demographic. It does, however, choose those who have pre-existing conditions such as asthma, and threatens their lives in ways that we have not seen before. Paradoxically, those suffering the most from wildfire fallout live very far from the fire sources.

Research scientists say they must do much more to understand how chronic exposure to wildfire smoke affects our health.* The levels of fine particulates during high-smoke events we’re now seeing drifting into New Mexico are unprecedented in the US and more closely resemble the air quality in urban China or India. Under current federal Clean Air Act law, wildfire smoke is an “exceptional event” since it is uncontrollable and so not in the normal air pollution control category. The Clean Air Act has been very effective with smoke as it emanates from factories, but this kind of smoke cannot be regulated or dealt with through this la

If we change the decisions we have made about how to manage forests, and where and how we build our homes, there is cause for optimism. Stanford University researchers say, “Some of the most promising solutions include greater use of prescribed burns, indigenous burning practices, and mechanical fuel treatments.”
It’s a whole new world, however, since creating defensible space is no longer a prerequisite for suffering from wildfire impacts.

We’re accustomed to wearing masks due to the pandemic, but whether masks effectively shield the hazards of wildfire smoke is unknown—again, more research is required by health experts. Stay tuned.
Next month we’ll hear from Chris Coté, local Wildfire Mitigation Specialist and former Chief of the Latir Fire Department.

  • quotes are from Robert Wara, of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.


  • Martha Shepp

    Questa Creative Council Board member and artist: Martha Shepp preaches the gospel of the power of creativity. One of her loves is to collaborate with open-minded genre-free artists like Mark Dudrow, playing life-affirming works that can’t help but spark the innate creativity of listeners like you. Her expressions also take form with words, choreography, and visual art... with ever expanding mashups of all the above.

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