This week the air is filled with smoke. I am over 200 miles from the huge Wallow wildfire in Arizona, but the air is filled with the sickly sweet smell of grass fire smoke and my eyes sting.
The haze sometimes grows as thick as a seaside fog. Yesterday the smoke was so thick that I could look directly at the blood red disk of the setting sun and the day before the sky turned a sickly yellow-gray.
It’s eerie. You can smell the fire, but you can’t see it. I know from the news that the fires are far away, but a primitive part of me keeps looking towards the horizon—looking for the flames.
In the photo below, the fire is 200 miles away but ashes are falling like snow. The sky is filled with fiery haze and you can look directly at the sun.
What must it have been like before mass communication? What must it have been like for the Native Americans, the local Pueblos, Navajo and Apache, when their world swirled with smoke from unknown fires? The turquoise skies are sacred in some of their mythology. What must it have felt like when the skies disappeared for days in a stinging gray haze?
The Hopi tribe has legends that we are approaching the end of a world age—the end of the Fourth Age of Man. (These legends are somewhat related to the Mayan 2012 apocalypse legend.) According to this religion, the earth has been wiped clean 3 times already, by fire, ice and floods. We are currently scheduled for the world age to end again in ash and fire
I’m a climatologist. I know that we had a La Niña last winter and it caused massive drought throughout the Southwest and Florida. Now, as temperatures climb and the harsh springtime winds blow, the lands are catching fire. The Wallow fire is the second largest in Arizona history and it is almost completely uncontrolled. There are natural reasons for this fire and the smoke filled skies.
The La Niña has left the Southwest and Florida in danger of massive wildfires. See full image at NOAA
But as I wander through the dull gray haze, and listen to the stories of entire towns fleeing the flames, it’s hard not to remember the legends.
Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, is a longtime writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac. She is also editor of The Browning World Climate Bulletin and has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.