Prescribed fire in the Sierra Nevada. Resource managers with the U.S. Forest Service and other management agencies use controlled fires to clear dead vegetation and low-lying brush from a forest, lowering the risk that future wildfires will have enough fuel to grow to dangerous sizes - photo: Eric Knapp/US Forest Service

Five weeks of sheltering in place has been good for the environment, but two local experts—a wildfire scientist and a public policy scholar—both of whom study long-term trends, predict that our region will revert to pre-pandemic pollution levels. It’s possible we could also see a few long-term policy changes intended to put a dent in the damage.

A burning issue

Normally, spring is the season for prescribed burns. Each year in the U.S., between 2 and 6 million acres of forest are set on fire intentionally, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. This is in order to reduce fuel buildup to prevent larger fires.

But in 2020, the year COVID-19 changed everything, it also changed fire management—for now, at least. In March, the U.S. Forest Service halted prescribed burns in Nevada, California and other Western states.

“The reason is very clear—the demonstrated link between particulate matter and susceptibility to corona infection,” said Dr. Adam Watts, a professor of fire ecology at the Desert Research Institute. According to an email from the forest service, the pause on prescribed burns should also help the agency’s employees reduce unnecessary travel and better practice social distancing.

Watts surmised that fire agencies might also be inclined to suppress fires that start naturally this summer. (He explained that while firefighters extinguish fires that threaten lives, structures, and critical habitats, if a wildfire does not threaten any of these things, it may be left to burn.)

“This could postpone air quality impacts from fires into fall,” Watts said.

Other environmental health indicators look good for April. As of today, Reno’s Air Quality Index (AQI) score is 36 out of a possible 50, and Carson City’s score is 30. Those numbers put both cities in the “good” category, the index’s highest ranking. And Nevada Department of Wildlife PIO Ashley Sanchez said in an email, while there is not yet data on how local wildlife are experiencing the shutdown, “Anecdotally speaking I’m sure the animals are loving this.”

But how will the region’s environmental health look once commerce reopens?

“Stopping [prescribed burns] will, by definition, result in higher wildfire activity later on,” Watts said. And that will likely mean smoky skies.

As for pollution from other sources like auto and air travel, Watts said, “As any advocate of improved environmental quality will observe, we’re an economy that thrives on consumption. And some of that consumption involves the use of non-renewable resources.”

He’s hopeful that we’ll learn some lessons from the shutdown. “We’ve seen that we can consume less,” he said. “If we think about it thoughtfully, there probably are ways we can consume less and allow our economy to still thrive.”

Business as usual? 

Elizabeth Koebele is a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno who researches policy decisions made in the wake of disasters.

“There’ve been a lot of articles presenting this moment as a look at an alternative future,” she said. “As far as the future, I think it’s pretty hard to say if we’re going to see any long-term changes or takeaways. People often want to return to normalcy as soon as possible. … I’m thinking about the 2008 recession. The recession saw reductions in emissions and greenhouse gases, but once the economy rebounded, pollution levels went back up.”

The baggage claim terminal at the Reno Tahoe International Airport on March 30, 2020 – image – The Ally

But disasters can lead to policy changes. Koebele explained the concept of “focusing events”—sudden, harmful events that bring specific policy issues to light in their wake. Examples include Hurricane Katrina, which brought reforms to FEMA, and 9/11, which led to the Patriot Act.

If the coronavirus pandemic does lead to changes in the way we think about environmental management, Koebele’s best guesses are that we’ll see groups working to cut greenhouse gasses, companies revising telecommuting policies, people re-thinking the necessity of air travel.

“We need to think more about reducing inequalities in healthcare,” she added. “More broadly, we’re seeing more negative effects of COVID-19 on disadvantaged populations.”

Koebele cited one post-disaster environmental policy effort that was particularly successful. In Colorado, after back-to-back fires and floods in 2012-13, government and nonprofits formed the Resilience Planning Program, which implemented 92 projects designed to better prepare Colorado for disasters. The projects included things like community planning and river management.

Could a similar level of disaster preparedness be on the horizon for Nevada and the nation, post-pandemic? “I hope that’s the takeaway,” said Koebele.

Kris Vagner is an arts and culture writer who’s earned awards for critical writing, entertainment writing, feature writing, and—somehow—sports writing. She’s also the editor of Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts news site. More at Support her work in The Ally.