Fire Breath­ing

Wild­fires in British Co­lum­bia and Cal­i­for­nia have blan­keted the north­west U.S. in smoke, cre­at­ing some of the most un­healthy air qual­ity in the coun­try

Newsweek International - - HORIZONS - by EMMA PENROD @Emapen

When nathan turner moved to utah a few years ago from Penn­syl­va­nia, he imag­ined tak­ing reg­u­lar walks with his wife and two young sons un­der a clear, western sky. Then came the smoke. The air qual­ity in Salt Lake City for the last few sum­mers has been abysmal. In July, his 2-year-old son de­vel­oped a cough so se­vere that Turner thought it was whoop­ing cough. Now, he plans to move the fam­ily back to the East Coast by the end of the year. “Get­ting our kids away from that kind of pol­lu­tion is re­ally im­por­tant,” he says.

The western United States used to be known for its big land­scapes and blue skies. This sum­mer, wild­fires in British Co­lum­bia and Cal­i­for­nia have blan­keted the north­west in smoke for weeks on end, caus­ing un­healthy air con­di­tions in states as far away as Ne­vada, Idaho, Wy­oming and Utah. The pol­lu­tion has far ex­ceeded lev­els deemed safe by the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

For a few days in Au­gust, Wash­ing­ton state had the worst air qual­ity con­di­tions in the na­tion. Mon­i­tors on Cheeka Peak, in the north­west cor­ner of the state, recorded 208 mi­cro­grams of soot per me­ter of air; any­thing over 36 mi­cro­grams is con­sid­ered un­safe by the EPA. At­mo­spheric sci­en­tists called the read­ing “un­prece­dented.” In Salt Lake City, far from the epi­cen­ter of fires in the north­west, air qual­ity de­graded over the course of the sum­mer, with read­ings as high as 90 mi­cro­grams in early Septem­ber.

All this soot is mak­ing peo­ple sick. Wild­fire smoke has been linked to rises in the rates of asthma, heart at­tack and stroke, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished ear­lier this year in the

Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion. For those with pre-ex­ist­ing heart con­di­tions, the risk of heart at­tack in­creases more than 40 per­cent when the air is dense with smoke. El­lie Brown­stein, a Salt Lake–area pe­di­a­tri­cian, who her­self has asthma, has re­cently been pulling out her in­haler ev­ery few hours. Typ­i­cally, she says, she needs it only when she’s ill. She ad­vises pa­tients with asthma to run their air con­di­tion­ing con­stantly in their homes to pre­vent symp­toms.

In­hal­ing wild­fire smoke can make healthy in­di­vid­u­als sick, caus­ing cough­ing, sore throat, chest pain and in­creased heart rate, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. Brown­stein says she saw “a gamut” of kids with these symp­toms in her clinic this sum­mer—many of whom had no his­tory of res­pi­ra­tory ill­ness. Emer­gency de­part­ments across Wash­ing­ton state re­port a rise in smoke-re­lated com­plaints since late Au­gust, says a spokesper­son for the State Depart­ment of Health. “It’s been a ter­ri­ble sum­mer,” says Robert Paine, head of pul­monary care at the Univer­sity of Utah Hos­pi­tal in Salt Lake City. “I’m get­ting ex­ten­sive re­ports of trou­ble breath­ing when smoke builds up. It’s caus­ing a lot of symp­to­matic prob­lems for my pa­tients with lung dis­ease.”

In the western U.S., wild­fire smoke is now the sin­gle largest source of sum­mer­time pol­lu­tion, ac­cord­ing to Dan Jaffe, a pro­fes­sor of en­vi­ron­men­tal chem­istry at Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton Bothell. The health risks are lend­ing ur­gency to calls for bet­ter man­age­ment of forests. Cur­rent fire-pre­ven­tion prac­tices, which fo­cus on avoid­ing wild­fires al­to­gether, have al­lowed un­der­growth to build up, prim­ing the land­scape for mas­sive, long-last­ing fires that gen­er­ate far more smoke than should oc­cur nat­u­rally. If for­est man­agers in­tro­duced smaller, more episodic fires, they might be able to pre­vent some of the big con­fla­gra­tions.

“These fires need to burn; they’re meant to burn,” says Carol Ekar­ius, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Coali­tion for the Up­per South Platte in Colorado. “The prob­lem is, they’re burn­ing far out­side the his­toric range of vari­abil­ity. If his­tor­i­cally it would have burned a cou­ple thou­sand acres, now it’s 100,000 acres.”

In ar­eas where it’s not fea­si­ble to con­duct small, con­trolled burns, it may be nec­es­sary to thin the forests with ma­chines. Af­ter weeks of cough­ing, Ekar­ius says she’s now “an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist who be­lieves in chain saws.”

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