2017 was one of the worst fire seasons on record for the US.
Almost 8.5 million acres burned across the country, and four large fires in Oregon are still burning. In this month alone, fires in Northern California burned more than 7,500 buildings. Here in Portland, Oregon, we experienced a thick haze from the British Columbia Canada fires in August, then had two weeks of smoke from the fires in the Columbia River gorge in our backyard. Due to the damaging health effects of inhaling particulate matter, we were told to open and shut front doors quickly, run central air if possible, and not go outside unless necessary. The short-term health effects of haze include burning eyes and runny noses - symptoms which my one-year old son started to experience after only a few weeks of very limited smoke exposure. Long-term health effects include chronic heart and lung diseases.
During these weeks of haze I found myself thinking of my friends in Sukadana, where our partner ASRI is located. You might remember that 2015 was the worst fire season on record in Borneo, with many people experiencing toxic haze from fires for over four months. This was made worse by the fact that in rural Indonesia, there is little need for houses to be seal-tight. In Portland, and across most of the US, we are able to escape the smoke by staying in our homes, and can go to public enclosed spaces such as the library. In Indonesia, many houses and public buildings are open – incorporating air flow to stay cool in the heat of the day. For many people in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia there was nowhere to go to escape the haze in 2015. Over 500,000 people reported respiratory tract infections, and the long-term health effects of smoke exposure remain to be seen.
In both the US and Indonesia, the fire seasons were more extreme because of unusually hot and dry conditions, in addition to human actions such as deforestation in Indonesia, and logging as well as chronic fire suppression in the US. Climate change will continue to bring more extreme weather patterns, which exacerbate these catastrophes. The health concerns tied to these catastrophic natural disasters is an example of planetary health, where human health is directly affected by environmental degradation.
Although feeling helpless in the face of these of these fires and the resulting haze, I also felt a sense of humanity and compassion. I was reminded that people halfway across the world experience the same struggles as I do. I felt a sense of shared consciousness with friends and people I have never met in Borneo. And I was reminded that if we continue to work together with people all over the world, we will continue to find solutions to our most pressing human and environmental concerns. Because we are all connected, and 7.4 billion heads are better than one.