Cli­mate-fu­eled fires hurt health

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION - By John Up­ton, Bar­bara Feder Ostrov and Heidi De Marco

SANTA ROSA, CALIF. >> As the dead­li­est fires in California his­tory swept through leafy neigh­bor­hoods here, Kath­leen Sar­mento fled her home in the dark, drove to an evac­u­a­tion cen­ter and be­gan set­ting up a med­i­cal triage unit. Pa­tients with burns and other se­vere in­juries were dis­patched to hos­pi­tals. She set about treat­ing many peo­ple whose symp­toms re­sulted from ex­po­sure to pol­luted air and heavy smoke. “Peo­ple were com­ing in with headaches. I had one. My eyes were burn­ing,” said Sar­mento, di­rec­tor of nurs­ing at Santa Rosa Com­mu­nity Health, which pro­vides health care for those who can­not af­ford it. But res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems — coughs and short­ness of breath — were among the big­gest risks. “We made sure ev­ery­one had a mask.”

More than half of the evac­uees at the shel­ter that Oc­to­ber night were se­niors, some from nurs­ing homes who needed oxy­gen 24/7. Sar­mento scram­bled to find reg­u­la­tors for oxy­gen tanks that were other­wise use­less. It was a chaotic night — but what came to worry her most were the weeks and months ahead.

“It looked like it was snow­ing for days,” Sar­mento said of the fall­ing ash. “Peo­ple re­ally need to take the smoke se­ri­ously. You’ve got cars ex­plod­ing, tires burn­ing. There has to be some long-term ef­fect” on peo­ple’s health. From Puget Sound to Dis­ney­land and east over the Rock­ies, Amer­i­cans have coughed and wheezed, rushed to emer­gency rooms and shut them­selves in­doors this year as pol­lu­tion from wild­fires dark­ened skies and rained soot across the land­scape. Even for healthy peo­ple it can make breath­ing a mis­er­able, chest-heav­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. For se­niors, the young and the frail, the pol­lu­tion can be dis­abling or deadly. Even though the na­tion has greatly im­proved air qual­ity over the past 40 years through en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions and tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ments, the in­creas­ing fre­quency of large wild­fires now un­der­mines that progress, re­leas­ing co­pi­ous pol­lu­tants that spread far and wide through the air and linger long af­ter the fires are ex­tin­guished. Scientists say cli­mate change, de­graded ecosys­tems and the fick­le­ness of the weather have been am­pli­fy­ing fires in forests, grass­lands and neigh­bor­hoods through­out the West. Nine times more western forest­land is burn­ing in large fires each year on av­er­age now than 30 years ago, ac­cord­ing to cal­cu­la­tions by two lead­ing scientists. The blazes cre­ate smoke waves — pulses of pol­lu­tion con­tain­ing ev­ery­thing from charred plas­tic residue to soot to other small par­ti­cles that lodge deep in the lungs.

They can trig­ger short-term ail­ments, such as cough­ing; worsen chronic dis­eases, such as asthma; and lead to long-term dam­age, in­clud­ing can­cer.

The ef­fect of the fires in North­ern California’s wine coun­try, which de­stroyed thou­sands of homes and killed 43 peo­ple, went well beyond the burn zone. The smoke choked the San Fran­cisco Bay Area, home to 7 mil­lion peo­ple in nine coun­ties, for days. Co­lette Hatch, 75, of Santa Rosa, who suf­fers from lung dis­ease and uses a neb­u­lizer daily, evac­u­ated to her daugh­ter’s home in Sun­ny­vale, in Sil­i­con Val­ley, when the fires came. But even nearly 100 miles away, Hatch said she strug­gled to breathe, cough­ing so hard she couldn’t sleep. Waft­ing beyond Oak­land and Liver­more in the East Bay, the smoke headed into California’s agri­cul­tural

heart­land, the Sacra­mento and San Joaquin val­leys. Known col­lec­tively as the Cen­tral Val­ley, it stretches for hun­dreds of miles roughly north to south, brack­eted by moun­tain ranges that trap some of the dirt­i­est air in Amer­ica. In­creas­ingly, wild­fires like the ones in North­ern California’s wine coun­try fun­nel smoke into the chute, sig­nif­i­cantly rais­ing the pol­lu­tion lev­els in places as far away as Fresno.

Cli­mate Cen­tral, a re­search and jour­nal­ism non­profit, ex­am­ined air district data from California’s Sacra­mento and San Joaquin val­leys. The anal­y­sis showed that while the num­ber of heav­ily pol­luted days is fall­ing over­all each year on av­er­age, those days are oc­cur­ring more fre­quently dur­ing the peak fire sea­son. The re­searchers, who share their work with ed­i­to­ri­ally in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ists, say wild­fire smoke is to blame. Mon­i­tors in the San Joaquin Val­ley and San Fran­cisco Bay Area showed lev­els spiked in Oc­to­ber as the wine coun­try fires sul­lied skies.

With large wild­fires on the rise, smoke and the at­ten­dant breath­ing ail­ments seemed ev­ery­where this year. In Septem­ber smoke from fires burn­ing in California, the Pa­cific North­west and Mon­tana pushed as far east as Penn­syl­va­nia. Smoke trig­gered emer­gency dec­la­ra­tions in Washington state and California. The Ev­er­green State was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing few fires of its own in July when it was hit by smoke waves that poured across the Cana­dian bor­der. And smoke re­turned to much of the north­west in Au­gust and Septem­ber as fires broke out in the Cas­cades and the Columbia Gorge.

“I re­mem­ber wak­ing up one morn­ing and the sky was or­angey-red and there was ash fall­ing out of the sky,” said Jeremy Hess, a re­searcher and physi­cian at the Univer­sity of Washington in Seat­tle. “This sum­mer was very busy for us in the emer­gency de­part­ment, and we were of­ten over ca­pac­ity. If it wasn’t the smoke, it was the heat,” Hess said.

The blazes came af­ter record-break­ing late sum­mer heat dried out grass that had flour­ished fol­low­ing record-break­ing win­ter rain — both forms of ex­treme weather that are wors­ened by global warm­ing.


Ed Corn wears a mask as he sifts through the ashes of the home he shared with his para­plegic room­mate in Santa Rosa’s Cof­fey Park neigh­bor­hood. “I can def­i­nitely taste the tox­ins in my throat and the back of my tongue,” he said.

A Cof­fey Strong sign stands amid the rub­ble left af­ter the North­ern California wild­fires. Cof­fey Park was one of the hard­est-hit ar­eas.

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