Wildfire Smoke Undoes Years Of Air Quality Improvement

Wildfire smoke chokes Sonoma, CA, Sept. 2020. Image: Miro Korenha

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A new study from Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego reveals that plumes of smoke from wildfires in recent years threatens to undo 40 years of air quality improvements in the American West and is just as deadly as heat-related health threats. 

In 2020, a record-breaking 4 million acres of California burned, killing 31 and damaging 10,000 buildings. Fires also ravaged Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, and like all impacts of climate change, disadvantaged communities and people of color are bearing the brunt of the consequences.

Why This Matters: Hospitals, especially those in California, have been overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases for nearly a year and smoke-related illnesses are putting even more pressure on healthcare systems. 

One study from the University of British Columbia found that the dangerous particles in wildfire smoke can impact a person’s health within the span of an hour. In September, after just one month of persistent wildfire smoke engulfing neighborhoods, Stanford observed a 12% jump in hospital admissions and a 43% increase in cerebrovascular conditions including strokes. For communities of color who are already suffering disproportionately from COVID and are more likely to live near industrial threats to their health, wildfire smoke finishes an unholy trinity of sickness and death.

How does wildfire smoke impact health?

Air pollution from fine particles less than 2.5 microns in width has been found to take an estimated 4 months off the lifespan of the average American. Smoke from wildfires increase exposure to these fine particles and can cause a variety of health problems including: 

  • Serious inflammation, even in young healthy people.
  • Immunosuppression, leaving those exposed more at risk of diseases like COVID-19.
  • Cardiac events like heart attacks.
  • Worsening or irritation of chronic lung conditions and asthma.
  • Worsening of symptoms for those with diabetes.

Last August, hospitalization for miscarriages doubled in the weeks after the fires, and more research is being performed to evaluate the impact of smoke on pregnancy and any causality that might exist. 

Smoke, like most air pollution, is distributed more equally among the populace. Even smoke that originates far away can travel great distances and research has shown that smoke pollution impacts white and wealthy communities at higher rates than other risks associated with climate change. Even so, the compounded risks faced by people of color mean that smoke exposure can be even more dangerous to their health, and studies have even shown that those who live in older, smaller homes have less protection from outside air pollution.


A Prescription for Healing: One solution to reduce devastating forest fires is, counterintuitively, to set more of them in strategic ways. Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth science at Stanford, explained, “there’s a huge amount of fuel on the ground. Climate change is drying it out and making it much more flammable.” One way to prevent that fuel from turning into acres of uncontrolled damage is to perform planned, controlled burns. Controlled burning has been practiced for thousands of years by Indigenous groups, some of whom are leading the charge to perform more burns in regions of California most at risk of catastrophic fires. 

Experts on “good fire” assert that bringing the practice back to California after years of government avoidance will protect people across the west, and reinvigorate Indigenous communities. Research ecologist Frank Lake said, “Prescribed fire is medicine. Traditional burning today has benefits to society as well as supporting what the tribes need.”

Even still, without immediate, comprehensive action on climate change, forest management will no match for the effects of a rapidly warming planet that’s supercharging wildfires


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