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Prolonged Heat And Smoke Is Taking Its Toll On West Coast Residents

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The effects of climate change are all around and, as we just heard, hard to live with in the American West this summer. The intense heat and dense smoke from wildfires took a toll on millions of people, as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It was a quintessential summer of 2021 moment. Rick Wright, a ski instructor and avid camper, was setting his new tents up for the first time in the middle of the night under the glare of his truck headlights.

RICK WRIGHT: And I'm looking at the directions when I'm setting them up, and it says, set these up before you go camping so you're familiar with them (laughter).

SIEGLER: This wasn't the pristine California backcountry setting he had planned to do that in. Instead, he was in a Red Cross shelter parking lot after evacuating from a wildfire encroaching on Lake Tahoe.

WRIGHT: Monday morning at 1 a.m., I'm setting up tents that I've never set up before because they were brand-new. We bought all this camping gear to go camping, and we didn't do it all summer.

SIEGLER: Because of the heat and smoke. Now, Wright is trying to laugh it off, but he says the record stretches of 90-plus degree days in his high-altitude home have been brutal.

WRIGHT: Then you add the smoke into it, too - it's been tough, definitely, toughest summer yet.

LARRY O'NEILL: I think just in a - kind of a broad level, I think this summer, we're getting clarity on the question about how bad can climate change get?

SIEGLER: Larry O'Neill is the state climatologist for Oregon, which recorded its hottest summer on record, including a 116-degree reading in June in Portland.

O'NEILL: And it just does not get this hot in Oregon in June or in any month, really.

SIEGLER: It even took climate scientists by surprise. O'Neill had predicted heat waves this extreme probably wouldn't arrive in the West until the 2030s. Over in Boise, Idaho, which recorded 18 days above 100 degrees since late June, people are struggling to adapt to this new reality.

KEVIN SAUER: It's smoky, hazy and not what I'm used to. It's usually beautiful out here, and it looks mucky.

SIEGLER: Kevin Sauer works construction and landscaping. His workday is ending earlier due to the heat. He even wound up in the ER once after collapsing from dehydration.

SAUER: It's given me heatstroke a couple times. It's been to the point where I've had to take a couple days off work. It's messed with my heart a little bit. It's literally just been putting me and other guys into the dirt.

SIEGLER: The heat and smoke is having an untold effect on health, the economy, recreation, pretty much every part of life here. At UC Davis, Paul Ullrich says temperatures in the West have risen by two degrees in a century, doubling the chances for more extreme heat and smoke events.

PAUL ULLRICH: There's going to be probably weeks out of any given year where tourism needs to effectively shut down because the air is just simply too smoky to do anything in.

SIEGLER: Ullrich says societal habits need to change to adapt to the changing weather conditions. That's already happening in outdoor recreation enclaves like Boise.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thanks.

SIEGLER: Mountain bike trails are now clogged early in the morning when the temperatures are still only in the 70s. People now check the air quality index on their phones just as frequently as they do the forecast.

ALLISON LEWIS: I felt like a prisoner last month.

SIEGLER: Allison Lewis and her son, who has asthma, are out for a ride. The morning sun casts a smoke-hued orange glow over the sagebrush.

LEWIS: I have memories of when I lived in Louisiana. And in the summer, you just, like, run from your car to the AC. And it's like, Boise's not supposed to be like that.

SIEGLER: For some, it's a wake-up call, but for others, the weeks of dense smoke here is a call to action.

MARSHALL BREZONICK: As you can see from here, it's hard to see some of the buildings downtown.

SIEGLER: Nearby, Marshall Brezonick takes a breather from his smoky hike.

BREZONICK: Since early 1900s, the policy's been to fight fires. But, you know, what we're doing - you know, the seasons are getting longer. It's putting more demands on those people who are required to fight the fires. And I think, you know, it's - there just has to be some kind of a change in policy.

SIEGLER: This is what President Biden will get an earful about tomorrow when he tours the Western wildfires, including a stop in Boise. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.