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Wildfires in western states are disrupting efforts to curb air pollution

Smoke from this year’s wildfires in western states has been observed across the country as the jet stream sweeps it east. Climate Central reports that smoke pollution from the wildfires are negatively impacting air quality, leading to impacts on public health. John Upton of Climate Central joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    California fire officials announce that the massive Carr fire, which burned for over a month this summer in and around the city of Redding has been fully contained. The fires, which began in late July claimed eight lives, destroyed more than a thousand homes and covered over 229,000 acres. Multiple fires continue to burn throughout the western U.S. and wildfire seasons are expected to last longer and burn hotter.

    Flames are not the only danger from fires. Smoke can drift for hundreds of miles. The smoke from this year's western wildfires has been observed all the way in New Hampshire, swept toward the east by the jet stream.

    A new report by nonprofit science and news organization Climate Central shows that in parts of California as well as Idaho, Oregon and Washington state progress in reducing traditional air pollution is being undermined by wildfires. Senior science writer Jon Upton joined me recently to discuss those implications.

    John, when we think about people affected by forest fires, we're usually thinking about those people who have homes that are too close to the fires, they evacuated, they get out of harm's way. But your report really starts to look at a group of people that can't get out of harm's way not from the fire but from the smoke. Explain.

  • JOHN UPTON:

    Well, the smoke actually from wildfires is becoming a huge public health issue across the west. It's actually blowing all the way to the east coast — it's recently been reaching New York, Louisiana, Maine. So the smoke from the wildfires is affecting a large number of people but it becomes so thick in some places, it's such a defining trait of the atmosphere, of the weather in the west right now that it is an escape. Some people are more vulnerable than others. Those who live at the edges of forest that are burning, they obviously get hit with very intense smoke plays with very severe health consequences.

    But there are also people who are living in areas that are already polluted who are already feeling unwell ,who have conditions such as asthma emphysema that are linked to breathing air pollution. This certainly is the case in California's Central Valley, which we think of as a as a farming region it produces a lot of their produce but that's a real ball is the mountains around it and the air pollution from the farms and the tracks there, it gets stuck in the valley. And they've been making great strides in cleaning the air there in recent years and decades through environmental regulations, technology improvements. But now what's happening is these fires are burning all around California in the west, the smoke ends up pouring into the valley and has nowhere to go and the people who are breathing that smoke now are the people who are already the most affected by air pollution.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So give me an example. Somebody who is out there literally in the fields all day working, picking produce what are they breathing in now as this fire season extends?

  • JOHN UPTON:

    What's the biggest concern is these tiny particles in the smoke, when the wood burns, when the material burns that it produces these tiny particles called particulate matter. These particles get into our lungs, they trigger asthma and other conditions but they're so small, they actually pass through into our blood streams and then they travel through our bloodstreams into our heart, into our brain and that exacerbate risks of everything from heart attack, stroke, even diabetes and depression.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You also took a look at the larger context of how this is happening. You're saying that the worst air quality days are actually happening when the forest fires are going. That seems pretty logical. But you're also pointing out that there are more and more days when forest fires are burning all over the west.

  • JOHN UPTON:

    climate Centrals researchers looked at a number of different regions in the west and compared the number of heavily polluted days that are occurring now to about 20 years ago. We're seeing more and more unhealthy days occurring during wildfire season and at the same time we're seeing the wildfire season is actually extending.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So give me an example of someone working in the San Joaquin Valley or living in the San Joaquin Valley. How how long or how much longer now is it that they're walking out into bad air?

  • JOHN UPTON:

    The changes from year to year and it's you know it's an average type thing but certainly the fire season is 100 days longer than it was in the 70s. So you would anticipate smoke impacts also being extended by a similar amount.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Let's also talk a little bit about why that's happening. How much does climate change contribute to longer and longer forest fire seasons?

  • JOHN UPTON:

    There's three reasons that we've been saying really terrible fire seasons slightly. one is beyond our control that's the weather the west has very variable climate conditions it will be very dry one year very one wet the next year or even from one century to the next. But there's two other factors that are very much under control.

    One of those factors is climate change, the temperatures are increasing. And when you get warmer temperatures, the moisture gets sucked out of the landscape so you have drier conditions and the fires are going to burn hotter. They are going to burn over larger areas. The third thing that's also under control is forest conditions, forest management. We haven't been spending very much money igniting and managing fires along the forest floor and a lot of these western landscapes and those fires used to occur naturally or under the control of tribes up until a couple of hundred years ago. And they would really remove a lot of the fuel from the forest floor. and when you have that fuel buildup that acts as a as a letter it actually lifts the flames from the forest floor up into the canopy. Once the flames get into the canopy that's when you have problems that's when you have these big wildfires that kill people and destroy property and cause all this pollution. So we are inevitably looking at a future with more fires and more smoke. That's what the modeling shows us, we Are expecting to see continued improvements in air quality from a continued shift to solar power and so forth but at the same time, we are expecting to see worse impacts undermining that progress from wildfires.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Climate Central senior science writer John Optum thanks for joining us.

  • JOHN UPTON:

    Thanks, Hari.

Editor’s Note: Peril and Promise is an ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, Climate Change. Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation.

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