Dangerous air: As California burns, America breathes toxic smoke

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But experts say there are steps government officials and individuals can take to better respond to the growing risk.

Decades of forest mismanagement have led to a dangerous build-up of undergrowth in California’s forests, providing fuel for recent major fires. Fire scientists say the state and the federal government both need to significantly step up efforts to help reduce the potential for devastating wildfires.

“What we have at the state level and the federal level is reactive policy – we are going to respond to fires,” said Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College. “God, this is problematic because it means you never get ahead of the curve. “

Last August, California Governor Gavin Newsom announcement a deal with the US Forest Service that promised everyone to do fire prevention work on 500,000 acres per year by 2025. Today, however, the Forest Service falls far short of that target. The agency told us it completed approximately 120,000 acres of processing in California during the fiscal year ending September 30. As for the state, Cal Fire was unable to itemize its progress, even after several email requests.

Prescribed burns are another potential avenue to take in California. Across much of the Southeastern United States, where academic research shows prescribed burns are fare more frequent, our survey shows a substantial drop in smoke from forest fires over the past decade.

Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem; without it, the wild lands become overgrown with brush and small trees. This causes destructive conflagrations to replace low-intensity natural fires that serve as an ecological reset. Many state lawmakers support their wider use, and in recent weeks the California legislature has passed bills that change liability laws and create a $ 20 million insurance liability fund.

“We need to make people understand that they can be exposed to a little prescribed burn smoke to prevent catastrophic fires,” said John Balmes, pulmonologist and professor at UCSF who sits on the California Air Resources Board.

Meanwhile, Pacific Gas and Electric – the state’s largest utility – continues to come under scrutiny for its role in starting wildfires. Earlier this year, the California Public Utilities Commission placed the company under “enhanced surveillance”For not having prioritized clearing around its most at-risk power lines. The company, which a federal judge called “terror – TERROR for the people of California,” pleaded guilty last year to 84 counts of manslaughter in connection with the 2018 camp fire . In July, the public service Recount the CPUC that a fallen branch may have started this year’s Dixie Fire, which has burned more than 960,000 acres, or 1,500 square miles, to date.

There are also changes individuals can make to reduce the health impacts of wildfire smoke, including installing indoor air filtration systems. “There is good data to show that these kinds of efforts can make a difference in protecting homes and saving lives,” Balmes said. But these devices can be expensive. Balmes recommends that the government do more to provide low cost or free air filters. “But all of this requires investment.”

Erasing progress on air pollution

The surge in smoke from wildfires is reversing decades of hard-earned gains in air quality improvement through environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act, Burke said. “We had actually had a lot of success in cleaning our air,” he added, but the rapid rise in smoke “threatens to undo decades of improvement and to cancel them very quickly.”

A dangerous pollutant in smoke from forest fires is PM2.5, tiny pieces of ash suspended in the air that are 30 times smaller than the width of a single human hair. This particulate matter can be inhaled deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. The Environmental Protection Agency says they are laying “the greater health risk”, Even causing an untimely death.

These tiny particles in forest fire smoke are known to make heart and lung disease worse, such as heart arrhythmias, heart attacks, bronchitis and asthma, with young children and the elderly being particularly vulnerable to its harmful effects. . Researchers have also linked smoke from wildfires to thousands of excess deaths from COVID-19 and are now exploring links between exposure to smoke from wildfires and stroke, pregnancy risks like premature births and neurological disorders such as stroke and Alzheimer’s sickness.

Smoke plumes can cover an entire region, affecting every resident regardless of income, but limited research suggests that the health risks disproportionately fall on the elderly, and particularly the poorest, who are most often from black, brown and indigenous communities.

People of color who live in low-income communities often have “an increased vulnerability to the effects of air pollution,” Balmes said. “They often have other stressors that contribute to poor health, such as a lack of a diet of fresh vegetables and fruits, which is actually protective in terms of the health effects of air pollution. air, and only their housing stock, which is often older, can be less protective because bad outside air from forest fires penetrates more easily.

Our analysis focused on the presence of plumes of smoke in the air, rather than PM2.5 particles, as the EPA’s air quality sensor array varies widely. Many urban communities lack monitors. The same goes for rural areas, often the areas closest to forest fires. And the sensors that are in place do not report every day. Corn EPA scientists say the presence of smoke plumes from forest fires closely follows the presence of fine particles.

Between 2000 and 2010, annual average PM 2.5 concentration levels in California and Nevada declined by 35%, according to an analysis of EPA data by NPR’s California Newsroom. By 2020, however, nearly all of those gains had been wiped out, with particle levels almost as high as they were two decades earlier. In the Pacific Northwest, levels of PM2.5 rose last year from where they were at the turn of the century, largely due to an increase in smoke from wildfires.

Indeed, with other sources of PM2.5, such as automobile exhaust, declining due to improved emission standards, smoke from forest fires accounts for an increasing share of particulate matter that people breathe. Burke’s team find in the West, PM2.5 from forest fires now accounts for up to half of all PM2.5 exposures, up from less than 20% ten years ago.

These tiny particles aren’t the only pollutants to worry about. When the campfire cremated the town of Paradise in 2018, it destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings, including gas stations, two grocery stores, eight schools and a hotel. Everything inside these buildings went up in smoke – from paint thinner and Drano to plastics, oil and pesticides. A report on the campfire released in July by the California Air Resources Board, found that toxic metals, including lead, have traveled more than 150 miles and have been detected at air monitoring stations in Silicon Valley.

Stuck inside alone

Brown, one of the few medical staff at Willows Family Care Clinic, says everyday smoke affects the mental health of his patients. The recommendation that people stay indoors on days with poor air quality heightens feelings of isolation during the pandemic.

“Say you’re in quarantine and all of a sudden you can’t even go into your own backyard without having a big headache or an asthma attack or worrying that your child has long term problems Due to forest fire smoke,” he said.

A man at home shows cookie jars in the shape of an animal on a shelf.
Larry George, 74, points to his late wife’s collection of cookie jars in his rented house in Willows, Calif. On September 2, 2021. The retired truck driver, who suffers from a chronic lung disease, said he had to stay indoors on smoky days to protect his health. (Farida Jhabvala Romero / KQED)

This isolation reaches Larry George, who lives alone a block from the hospital in a gray two-bedroom house. The 74-year-old Vietnamese veteran and retired truck driver suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. On foggy days, George hardly ever leaves his house.

When he has to go to the doctor or the grocery store, it is even difficult for him to take a few steps to his white van.

“It just feels like you’re not allowed to go out,” he said, wheezing in his living room, where he keeps an oxygen machine and a big screen TV tuned in to. Fox News. “You no longer have the freedom you had before.”

Like Pedrozo, he plans to move to a place with cleaner air.


Alison Saldanha is a data reporter who led this investigation for the California NPR Newsroom, where Aaron Glantz is the senior investigator. Farida Jhabvala Romero is a reporter for KQED in San Francisco. Caleigh Wells is a reporter and producer at KCRW in Los Angeles.

George LeVines and Molly Peterson of the California Newsroom contributed reporting. Glantz edited this story with Newsroom Editor-in-Chief Adriene Hill. The story was edited by Don Clyde. Scott Rodd, state government reporter at CapRadio in Sacramento, also contributed reporting with Lily Jamali of KQED.


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