We all have our kryptonite. Remember, that’s the glowing, green substance from Superman’s planet that makes him vulnerable and weak. Even knowing how bad that stuff was, he seemed to always find it. It showed up at the worst possible times; when he was saving the world from evil and tyranny, bam. Kryptonite. Boy, can I relate to that. My kryptonite also comes from my planet, which is called Earth. It tends to show up at the worst possible moments for me too, like when I'm breathing.
For me, my kryptonite is smoke. Nothing gets my asthma going faster than smoke. It renders me powerless in minutes, and once it overtakes me, I don’t get my powers back right away. If I’m in a smoky room and can get out of it in time, I’m okay. If it’s everywhere and there’s no place to retreat, well, my superpowers disappear for a long time.
Saturday’s bike ride out south of Salem was originally going to include a return trip via Turner. I love the scenery out there and it adds a little more variety to the ride, but it was not in the cards for me on Saturday. Just past Ankeny Hill was this big plume from a burning field. I had no choice but to turn away. No superpowers today.
Smoke is no stranger to this area. Long before whites began to settle here, the Kalapuya people used fire as an effective means of managing the land. In recent times burning has been the primary tool for the grass seed industry to control pests, weeds, and diseases. Fire is a very efficient, cost-effective way to wipe the slate clean and start over fresh. The problem was that so many farmers were burning their fields after their harvests, it was becoming increasingly harmful to the quality of life here. I can't tell you the number of really scary asthma episodes I've had because of field burning or forest fires. But I will tell you this: when it takes every bit of energy you have just to get a tiny bit of air through the inflamed and swollen lining of your lungs, over and over again with no relief, that's my idea of hell.
In addition to the tremendous health hazard smoke poses for those of us with respiratory problems, all the burning here was having adverse affects on other parts of the local economy and traffic safety. In 1988 the visibility was so bad from all the smoke from a nearby field burn, that it caused a horrible 23-vehicle chain reaction crash on I-5 that killed 7 people and injured 38. This was the catalyst for legislation that has cleared our air considerably. The amount of field burning in the valley fell from 250,000 acres down to 65,000. Burning fees were dramatically increased. As of 2010 we’re down to just 15,000 acres, primarily where steep terrain and crop species necessitate it the most. It's so much better now. I sincerely thank our legislators from the bottom of my lungs.
That said, we are a long way off from saving the world against evil and tyranny. This “fix” has forced farmers into an almost impossible situation, especially in this economy. We cannot turn a blind eye to the impact they're feeling from this! Growers currently pay more to produce grass seed than what they get selling it. Obviously not sustainable. They now have to use more fuel, plowing and re-plowing their fields. Without the ability to burn, they must turn to increased use of pesticides. In other words, we’ve got another kryptonite on our hands.
We’re still waiting, Superman.