OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — As the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history burns on, millions of Californians living hundreds of miles away have been forced to grapple not only with the impacts but what it portends.
“This should be a wake-up call,” Dr. Kari Nadeau, pediatric asthma and allergy specialist at Stanford University, told ThinkProgress. “We should say, how do we mitigate this? How do we make sure that in two weeks, this isn’t just something that’s out of sight, out of mind?”
The Camp Fire has claimed the lives of 79 people so far, with roughly 1,000 others listed as missing. It leveled the town of Paradise, forcing newly homeless survivors to sleep in tent camps, while norovirus spread through the few shelters available. In a state already feeling the housing squeeze, an estimated 100,000 people have been displaced by the fire.
Remnants of the nightmarish scene spread downwind to create something of a secondary hazard, as the air quality throughout the greater Bay Area, roughly 150 miles south of the fire, has been unhealthy for several days in a row. Last Friday, the Air Quality Index (AQI) for San Francisco reached 271 — the equivalent of smoking 10 cigarettes per day.
California has always grappled with fires, but several factors — including hot, dry conditions exacerbated by climate change and humans increasingly encroaching on forests — have ushered in an era of unprecedented wildfires. That’s not only a serious concern for people living in high risk areas, but as the past several days have shown, millions of others who live downwind.
How bad is the air?
From November 8 through 20, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) issued 13 winter “spare the air” alerts, notifying the public of air quality readings ranging from “unhealthy” to “hazardous,” Sarah Zahedi, public information officer, told ThinkProgress.
“This is a record for us; we haven’t had 13 in a row before,” Zahedi said, adding that during last year’s severe North Bay fires, BAAQMD issued 10 alerts in a row.
A combination of light winds, lack of rain, and inversion layers commonly seen in the Bay Area in winter — a layer of warmer air developing over colder air and trapping pollution close to the ground — has kept the wildfire smoke stagnant throughout the area, Zahedi explained.
Rain is forecast for this week and is expected to improve air quality, but experts caution that it won’t be a cure-all; the rains could trigger landslides in newly burned areas and, of course, far more precipitation than what’s expected this week is needed over the next several months to reduce future fire risk in 2019.
What are the health impacts?
As schools and other establishments closed for several days and residents stayed indoors, donning an array of masks when they ventured out, many wondered about the effects of breathing the smoke-filled air. Zahedi said her agency was receiving “constant calls” last week from people describing symptoms and asking what to do about them.
As Nadeau explained, the smoke brings dangerous particulates that are less than 2.5 microns (or 1/30th the diameter of a piece of hair). These particles are so small, they can slip past the body’s natural defenses, traveling into the lungs and even the bloodstream. Inside the body, the particles cause inflammation and congestion — itchy eyes, scratchy throat — and can activate diseases like asthma, stroke, and heart attacks.
“It is going to be harmful to some people, there’s no question,” Nadeau said. “We know from the San Diego fires in the past, from the fires in Napa Valley, that that led to health consequences later on.”
Who is most at risk?
Children younger than four years old, with lungs that are still developing, elderly people over 65, and people with pre-existing heart and lung disease are most at-risk during periodic air pollution events like this one.
While experts recommend staying indoors, and wearing an N95 mask if you have to go outside, that simply isn’t an option for many people. Homeless people, construction workers, delivery people, farmworkers — so many people throughout the large swath of the state impacted by dangerous air pollution have to be out in it regardless.
“When you inhale air [normally], it’s pretty much clear and it feels good on your lungs,” Angel Mason, who is homeless, told ThinkProgress while standing outside a Whole Foods last week selling Street Sheet newspapers. “This particular instance, inhaling a lot of this air I’ve noticed it’s kinda making my ribs sick. It feels like inhaling a lot of poison.”
Mason said she’s able to sleep indoors at a shelter but spends many hours outside during the day and didn’t have a mask. “It’s pretty horrible,” she said.
Farmworkers have also continued working outdoors for many hours, despite the dangerous conditions, as ThinkProgress’ E.A. Crunden reported. But activists attempting to hand out protective masks to farmworkers in Stockton and Lodi were stopped and turned away, according to Pacific Standard.
Healthy individuals exposed to these pollution levels for two weeks should recover, according to Dr. John Balmes, professor of medicine and environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s chronic exposure to this level that I’d be most worried about,” Balmes told ThinkProgress. That’s a daily reality for millions of people living in the most polluted cities in India and China, for instance. “Living in Delhi, which is basically the kind of air we have now and then some, all the time, that has major health consequences,” he said.
A new index developed by researchers at the University of Chicago and released this week found that average life spans in India are 4.3 years shorter because of air pollution, while life expectancy in China is 2.9 years shorter. Looking into California’s future, Jeffrey Pierce, an atmospheric science professor at Colorado State University, said last year that more regular exposure to these smoke events could have an impact on residents’ life spans, Earther reported at the time.
What happens next?
It’s painfully obvious to anyone who looks at the data that California’s fires are bigger, deadlier, more destructive, and costlier than ever before.
Fifteen of the 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred since 2000, in fact, and that doesn’t include this November’s monstrous blazes. The state fire agency exhausted its annual $442.8 million budget in early August of this year.
“I agree with Governor [Jerry] Brown that this is the new normal,” Balmes said. “It’s actually pretty alarming.”
As far as how the state should grapple with this new reality, Balmes identified two key takeaways for the public: the first is that “climate change is the driver for this,” and second, “this is going to take major investment to do better forest management and protection of communities at the wildland-urban interface.”
Forest management has become something of a buzzword these days, as President Donald Trump and other members of his cabinet have routinely sought to blame California state officials for the state’s devastating wildfires, prompting swift backlash from officials, scientists, and firefighters alike.
For starters, roughly 60 percent of the state’s forests are federally controlled. And across the state, no matter who oversees the land, federal and state officials are struggling to address the scope of the problem. Several years of drought conditions and rising temperatures, driven by climate change, resulted in a record 129 million trees dying last year and posing a serious threat to homes and other infrastructure.
“Last year fire management alone consumed 56 percent of the USDA Forest Service’s national budget,” the Forest Service’s Randy Moore said in a statement last December. “As fire suppression costs continue to grow… funding is shrinking for non-fire programs that protect watersheds and restore forests, making them more resilient to wildfire and drought.”
In an executive order issued in May of this year, Brown took steps to address tree mortality and improve forest management, allocating an additional $96 million for the effort, on top of $160 million proposed in January’s cap and trade expenditure plan. But in a state as large and populous as California, with so many communities surrounded by tinderbox forest, the task is a daunting one. As climate change continues to worsen, setting the stage for many more severe fires to come, it will only get harder.
The painful irony, of course, is that California has arguably done more than any other state to address climate change. But both Nadeau and Balmes say more needs to be done to decrease fire risk, protect communities in the danger zones, and safeguard the health of communities far away. They hope the push for comprehensive policies to address the new wildfire reality doesn’t dissipate when the smoke clears.
“This is going to happen again, we know that, the setup is just too much from the drought condition,” Nadeau said. “It is scary but it shouldn’t stun us. It shouldn’t let us become complacent.”
“If the Camp Fire doesn’t wake people up,” Balmes said, “I don’t know what will.”