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California fires, from the Getty Center to Kincade, unleash another danger: Air pollution

We need to stop looking at wildfires in terms of houses destroyed and recovery dollars spent. They also cause irreversible health damage from air pollution.
Structures burn at a vineyard during the Kincade fire near Geyserville, California.Josh Edelson / AFP - Getty Images

The defining story of the raging Sonoma and Los Angeles wildfires is one we’re barely talking about: Wildfire smoke, and its contribution to rising air pollution levels across much of the United States, is irreversibly harming human health. While the blazes may seem like a problem limited to California and the West Coast, it’s a dangerous and increasingly frequent contributor to the growing global scourge of air pollution that impacts us all.

It wasn’t long ago that the historically destructive Camp fire that raged near Chico, California, last fall resulted in nearby residents breathing air that was equivalent to smoking half a pack of cigarettes daily. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index found Chico’s pollution level to be 500 on a scale where 300 is deemed “hazardous” and even 150 is “unhealthy.”

As wildfires become more commonplace, we can no longer ignore growing evidence directly linking acute smoke exposure to increased deaths.

And major American cities such as Seattle and San Francisco have been plagued by the worst air quality in the world for weeks at a time due to nearby infernos. Considering that air pollution from all causes is the fifth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide (11th in America), resulting in an estimated 4.6 million fatalities, this should be alarming to all Americans -- most especially, our elected leaders.

We need to stop talking about wildfires primarily in terms of acreage burned, houses destroyed and recovery dollars spent. Instead, we need to start focusing on its devastating and irreversible public health impacts. Financial resources can help rebuild houses and repair damage to infrastructure and forests; but it takes action ahead of time through fire prevention and environmental protection policies to safeguard public health from wildfires. Our state and federal governments need to exercise the political courage to implement these measures now.

Those with asthma, longtime smokers with chronic lung disease, and patients with heart failure are particularly vulnerable to declines in health as a result of acute smoke exposure. Any Sonoma resident with one of these illnesses who is breathing in the current toxic air is more likely to need rescue inhalers or steroids to diminish inflammation from the irritation caused by the ambient particulate matter from the smoke. They are also far more likely to need medical attention, with rising hospitalization rates particularly among those 65 years and older.

But don’t be complacent if you’re younger. Countless studies have documented the clear association between wildfire smoke exposure and lung function decline in children. Adverse birth outcomes, including lower birth weights, have been observed among babies that were in utero during the 2003 southern California wildfires. Similar global studies suggest a clear link between wildfire exposure and poor health outcomes among newborns in Southeast Asia.

Because the unhealthy ambient matter released from wildfires is usually very small, it can lodge within the body’s tiniest arteries, veins and lung tissue. That can lead to tissue inflammation, impairing organ function. And you’re not safe living thousands of miles away from conflagrations in the West; scientists from Colorado State University have studied the phenomenon of “rivers of smoke,” where smoke from wildfires that burned months prior in the West can travel as far as the Great Plains and the Midwest.

As wildfires become more commonplace, we can no longer ignore growing evidence directly linking acute smoke exposure to increased deaths and permanent impacts on our immune system, particularly those of children. An estimated 15,000 American deaths annually are linked to wildfire smoke exposure alone, a number expected to more than double by the end of the century. In comparison, the Camp fire, which was the most destructive fire on record in California history, directly killed 85 people through burns.

While the rate of pollutants in our air had been in decline from 2009 through 2016, a recent Carnegie Mellon University study found it started rising again after that. The greatest relative change was observed in the western United States, where the concentration of fine particulate matter increased by 11.5 percent since 2016. In addition to increases in driving and the burning of natural gas, wildfires, unsurprisingly, were viewed as a primary culprit.

The upshot is that if you are living in most major urban centers on the West Coast, you are frequently breathing in air that’s more polluted than it was only three years ago. During an intense wildfire, your ambient environment may be difficult to distinguish from notorious hubs of smog such as New Delhi and Dhaka. Sure, you can wear a mask, get an indoor air filter, avoid going outside and hope for the best; as a pulmonologist, I’d recommend all these well-known reflexes for reducing exposure to air pollution. But don’t fool yourself – if this feels rudimentary and wholly insufficient, that’s because it is.

As Smokey Bear has been telling us for decades, prevention is the most important way to fight wildfires and their health risks. We have policies to do so at the state and federal levels, we just need greater political will. The Environmental Defense Fund emphasizes that the federal government needs to spend more on forest maintenance, including removing dead trees and shrubs that serve as fuel.

Until now, though, federal support has mostly been in response to fire catastrophes, not in their prevention. For those concerned about the economic toll, keep in mind that ensuring the U.S. Forest Service has enough funding to perform these activities would also provide a source of new jobs (and therefore tax revenue).

If you are living in most major urban centers on the West Coast, you are frequently breathing in air that’s more polluted than it was only three years ago.

Education is also needed for local governments and homeowners alike. The Center for American Progress has repeatedly noted that wildfire hazard mapping tools need to be publicly available and frequently updated to help secure new and retrofitted construction.

Any case for wildfire prevention would be incomplete without acknowledging the ever-clearer association between these fires’ frequency and the worsening climate change. Acknowledging this reality means allowing states like California to act on the core of the problem by enhancing stricter auto emission standards, a rule the Trump administration inexplicably revoked in September. Instead of feuding, state and federal governments need to work together if we are going to ensure that Americans are able to breathe clean air.