The raging wildfires burning in the West can seem distant, until they start depositing clouds of deadly particulates in nearly every state in the lower 48. But it’s more than just the haze: wildfires are about to become very real for everyone who likes wine, coffee, Christmas, or weed.
In addition to supply chain slowdowns thanks to COVID-19, wildfire and the underlying conditions that are making fire seasons more severe are about to come for things a lot of people like very much, and it won’t be fixed when winds shift and the smog blows away.
Here’s a list of things you can expect to start seeing less of as the climate continues to change for the worse.
Fire season is coming for weed
The fire-threatened center of California’s weed industry, the so-called “Emerald Triangle” is again seeing massive and deadly fire activity, including fire tornados, or “firenados” seen in fires near a town literally called Weed.
These hellish vortexes can spin up to 150 mph, and can spit out flames that will start more fires, called “spot fires,” in un-ignited areas making these phenomena extremely dangerous for fire crews and residents.
But it’s not just the fire and drought itself that threatens crops: it’s the smoke.
Shane Phillips, the 39-year-old owner of Lemurian Industries, a cannabis business in the city, told VICE News.told VICE News the quality of weed goes down after being engulfed in smoke, and many growers don’t talk about it.
“A lot of farmers won’t like to admit it, but the smoke is going to taint the product,” Phillps told VICE News. “That smoke gets in there and you can smell it, taste it, the whole nine yards and it’s in the flower itself. It’s a little fly by the seat of your pants.”
The grower said that the excessive drought and remoteness of his farm means he’s having to protect his life's work on his own most of the time, with help from the community of other growers.
“It’s touch and go: One moment you’re OK with the decision, and the next you feel like you’re going to lose everything,” said Phillips, who lives in Weed, a town of less than 3,000 people. “It’s not new, but the feeling is almost indescribable.”
Although nearly six months away, this holiday season may also be affected by the fires—not to mention the West’s increasingly severe droughts. Christmas tree growers in Oregon are facing exceedingly difficult growing conditions for their trees. Typically, Christmas tree farmers like Larry Reyerson, owner of U Cut Christmas Tree Farm in Medford, Oregon, have access to water from spring to early fall—this year, he’s had water to grow for just five weeks.
“This year is by far the worst I’ve ever had,” said Reyerson, who’s been in the business since 1979. “I need water just to keep my young ones surviving, and then the bigger ones probably can make it through the drought, but they couldn't make it through the hot days we’ve had.”
“I don’t know if we’re going to open up, or even have Christmas this year,” he added. “It’s bad.”
Christmas trees take at least 6-7 years to grow to proper “Christmas Tree” height. While mature trees may survive a year of drought and fire, growers say seedling inventories have been completely destroyed this year.
Researchers at the University of California Davis have released research highlighting how Californa’s wine country is falling victim to climate change. Wildfires, as well as the drought, are hurting the area’s grapes, meaning not only is the yield expected to decline, but the quality, too.
Smoke of wildfires is permeating into areas like Napa Valley, meaning it’s tainting the vineyards and literally changing the taste of wine.
“Can you imagine licking an ashtray?” Anita Oberholster, a Cooperative Extension enology specialist at UC Davis, said in the paper. “When wines are heavily impacted, it can taste like that.”
In addition, the drought is shriveling vineyards up and reducing areas where grapes can thrive, meaning that in the future, wines may become more scarce.
“We’re seeing the impact of climate and climate change,” Megan Bartlett, a UC Davis plant biologist and assistant professor. “Especially after the heatwaves and the megadrought a few years ago, we really saw, as an industry, declines in (crop) yield. These are really pressing problems, especially now.”
Hundreds of people have died due to extreme temperatures in the Pacific Northwest. Portland alone had three record-breaking days in a row late last month, topping out at 116 degrees on June 28, but it’s not just people having a tough time of it: clams are literally being cooked in their shells.
Historically low tide, mixed with blazing sun means that the bivalves are getting slammed by sunlight for hours. The result: they’re surfacing with their mouths open, as if they were cooked.
“The clams were popping up, it looked like they were steamed open,” Adam James, a clam farmer for the Hama Hama Company, told KIRO 7 Puget Sound local news. “Each day just got worse and worse,” James said. “I’ve been the farm manager since 2006, and since that time it seems like we have more and more 100 year events. I had 10 years of happy farming, if you will, and now it’s just curveball after curveball.”
Coffee prices around the world are starting to rise because the drought is affecting more than just the United States. Major water shortages are gripping Brazil, and as a major producer of coffee, the United States, the nation with the most coffee consumption, is having to pay more for the drink.
“We’re currently signing contracts for delivery in the summer and fall, and those prices have gone up quite a bit, about 15 percent increases on everything,” Oliver Stormshak, chief executive at Olympia Coffee Roasting, based in Olympia, Washington, told CNBC. “I’m trying to decide right now whether we eat the costs or restructure our pricing and raise it”
Climate change is not only causing the drought, but it also brought about COVID-19, and the pandemic is driving up the cost of coffee, too, because of the shipping restraints and mail delays.
Companies out of South and Latin America, as well as Africa are facing major shipping constraints as e-commerce takes off and life is still largely online.
Literally going outside
There’s no escape from the effects of wildfires, and across the United States air quality is turning dangerous because of the smoke these disasters are causing.
Even as far north as Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe area, a pristine wilderness site where no motorized boats are allowed, air quality is plummeting. The area has become consumed by wildfire smoke. In fact, air quality across the state is turning extremely hazardous. A healthy level is considered 30 on Minnesota’s Air Quality Index: On Tuesday, it was at 150 in Minneapolis and 249 further north.
“The large fuels are just, you know, drier than what the type of wood you would get at Home Depot," Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak, a district ranger for the Superior National Forest, told Minnesota Public Radio News. “"So that is one of those critical points that firefighters look for. Do we have a natural barrier besides the lake? Can we use our wetlands as natural barriers to slow fire spread? And right now? No, that's not working."
The smoke causing this unhealthy air in Minnesota is coming from fires Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park, as well as the Delta Lake Fire, which as of Thursday is only 10 percent contained with 65 acres burned. Typically, this area in Minnesota is home to wetlands and ample water, but the drought has dried it all up.
Other popular recreation areas across the United States are shutting down due to wildfire danger as well. Multiple parks in California are either closed or partially closed because of the fires, and Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest, the site of the largest fire currently burning in the U.S, the Bootleg Fire that’s burned 400,000 acres so far as is only 38 percent contained, has multiple wide-spread closures.