Wildfire Smoke Makes Tahoe, Reno Air Quality Worst in Country

Wildfire smoke over Reno at sunset

Photo: Ian Abbott, Flickr

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

As the Caldor Fire burns through the El Dorado National Forest, the area around Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada, has developed the worst air quality in the county.

An AQI above 300 is considered hazardous and can cause serious health issues. The index considers the five major pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act, including small but hazardous particle pollution called PM 2.5, which wildfire smoke contains in high levels.  

Why This Matters: The smoke alone is enough to cause health issues from small particle pollution. Coupled with COVID, health experts are doubly concerned. A recent study found that smoke from 2020 wildfires caused an increase in COVID-19 cases in West Coast states. The 2021 climate change-fueled wildfires are raging, and COVID-19 cases are spiking as the Delta variant spreads among unvaccinated people.

A third of Reno’s Washoe County hasn’t been vaccinated, and COVID-19 cases in the area were up 24% this week. Projections for more frequent, more intense wildfires could lead to long-term public health impacts as people are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution year after year. 

“What’s happening in Lake Tahoe and in Reno is very concerning,” Francesca Dominici, a researcher at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and study co-author, told CNN, “because we know that exposure to a high level of fine particulate matter can amplify the negative effect of the pandemic.”

Wildfire Doesn’t Discriminate, but Some Communities Are More At Risk: Once the AQI crosses 300, guidelines say it’s hazardous even for healthy people. People with heart or lung disease, the elderly, children, and unhoused people are especially at risk to lower levels of exposure. The Washoe County School District closed all its schools earlier this week because of the air quality. 

Communities that already experience air pollution from other sources are at an even higher risk of adverse health impacts. According to the state’s analysis, in California, those communities are primarily Hispanic and between the ages of 10 to 64. In the San Joaquin Valley, for example, ongoing pollution from highways and agricultural industries makes kids in the area more likely to have asthma, even without the wildfires as a factor. 

Smoke also travels; southerly winds are sending smoke from the dozen fires in Northern California toward Los Angeles at potentially hazardous levels. An air quality advisory earlier this week advised residents to stay indoors and avoid physical activity. This summer, smoke from fires in California, Oregon, and Montana caused hazy skies on the U.S. East Coast.

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