Across California and the West, where dozens of large wildfires are burning, public health agencies are urging people to seal off their windows and doors, change filters in air conditioning units and in some places wear masks if they have to go outside for any extended period.
Just as the wildfire season is getting longer and more destructive in the West because of climate change and prior forest management, scientists are warning of a lengthening — and worsening — smoke season. The fires themselves have burned hundreds of homes and forced thousands to evacuate. But the smoke, and the unhealthy toxins blowing in with it, will directly affect hundreds of thousands more people. It used to be just a few days here or there. Now, the smoke pollution is lasting for weeks, even months.
"You've heard a lot about air pollution in Beijing, that's what it's like," says Anthony Wexler, director of the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California Davis.
Advisories for unhealthy air have been in place in and around Glacier National Park in Montana lately, as well as eastern Washington and up and down the West Coast. In some places, air quality readings have easily been 10 times worse than the federal standard, even higher.
Near Redding, Calif., where the Carr Fire continues to burn out of control, Richard Libscomb's home has been choked by smoke for weeks. At first it was just a nuisance, until one afternoon when he was outside doing work.
"I started breathing hard, getting dizzy and I fell down," Libscomb, 81, says. His doctor told him wildfire smoke particles were coating his lungs. Until the air gets clearer, he's on oxygen, carrying a small tank with him everywhere in case of emergencies.
Wildfires are a fact of life here. Libscomb used to fight them when he was younger. But the smoke never lingered this long.
"This year it's been hanging in there," Libscomb says. "It's pretty good sometimes in the morning and then before the day's over you can't see those trees."
In Redding, the smoke has been so thick you can't even see the sun most days. High school football teams are practicing indoors. Shasta County Health and Human Services has distributed more than 10,000 free "N-95" smoke masks that filter out 95 percent of harmful particulates. For 21 consecutive days, Redding's air quality was listed as unhealthy.
"Everybody comes in coughing a little bit, just struggling, sneezing watery eyes," says Dave Maron, the county's manager for community health protection.
Maron says his agency's public messaging has been constant: Wear your masks and avoid any exertion outside: "Because this exposure to long-term wildfire smoke does have health effects," he says.
Children whose lungs aren't fully developed and older people who may have pre-existing conditions are considered to be especially at risk.
There's a reluctant acceptance among many westerners that prolonged smoke events are the future, just like these more destructive, modern mega-fires. As in a lot of western cities, Redding has expanded into forests where the fire risk is high. On the city's west side, the devastation from the Carr Fire is alarming: homes, power lines, old cars, gas tanks are incinerated. It's not just smoke from burning forests anymore.
"When you get smoke from structures with benzenes and other cancer causing formaldehydes in these materials, that's a whole other ball game," Maron says.
Researchers at universities in the Northwest and California are now more narrowly studying the long-term health effects of this. At UC Davis, Anthony Wexler's team hopes to soon give first responders and firefighters a clearer picture of the safety risks. Scientists are using a mobile air quality unit and are traveling to some of California's biggest fires — and hardest hit neighborhoods — to sample particulate matter.
"If there are serious toxins in the atmosphere then there could be long-term health consequences that we don't even understand," Wexler says.
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California is marking one of the most destructive fire seasons in its history. The Mendocino Complex Fire alone is the largest wildfire ever recorded in California and has currently consumed close to 400,000 acres. Across the state, more than 800,000 acres have burned. The multiple wildfires of the summer have taken lives, burned hundreds of homes and structures and caused thousands of people to be evacuated. There's another byproduct of these fires that will affect hundreds of thousands more people - smoke and the unhealthy toxins blowing in with it. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on how the West is trying to make itself more smoke-ready.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In the mountains of Northern California, Richard Libscomb's home has been choked by wildfire smoke for weeks. At first, it was just a nuisance, until one afternoon when he was out doing work around the garden.
RICHARD LIBSCOMB: I went up there, and I started breathing hard. I couldn't - what the dickens going on? I started getting dizzy, and I fell down, and I...
SIEGLER: The doctor told him wildfire smoke particles were coating his lungs. Now Libscomb has to travel everywhere with a small oxygen tank for emergencies.
R. LIBSCOMB: You know, it just - what in the hell's going on, you know? It never happened to me like that before. I'm a pretty outdoorsman.
SIEGLER: Libscomb is 81. He and his wife and son had to make the two-hour trip to Redding for doctors' appointments.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Okey-doke.
SIEGLER: At the Whiskeytown Reservoir, the Libscombs are waiting with neighbors for authorities to escort them a hundred miles home through the burned area of the Carr Fire. Now, fires are a part of life here. Richard used to fight them when he was young. But the smoke never lingered this long.
R. LIBSCOMB: This year, it's been hanging in there. It's pretty good sometimes in the morning, and then before the day's over, oh, you can't see those trees.
SIEGLER: In Redding, you can't even see the sun most days. The smoke is that thick. High school football teams are practicing indoors. People who do have to go outside are wearing these green N95 smoke masks that filter out 95 percent of the harmful particulates.
DAVE MARON: I think there's about 15,000 masks. We've already distributed about 10,000 masks.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Wow.
SIEGLER: Dave Maron at the Shasta County health department says for three weeks straight, Redding has endured unhealthy air.
MARON: You can hear everywhere how difficult it is. Everybody comes in coughing a little bit, just struggling, sneezing, watery eyes.
SIEGLER: Across the West, health agencies are urging people to seal off their windows and doors and change the filters in their air conditioning if they're lucky enough to have it. In Redding, when the temperature gets above a hundred for long stretches, which it does now a lot, the county opens cooling centers.
MARON: It's been, you know, a constant messaging from public health to avoid exertion outdoors, wear your masks because the exposure to long-term wildfire smoke does have health effects.
SIEGLER: Especially for children, whose lungs aren't fully developed, and older people, who may have pre-existing conditions. With climate change and dense stands of trees and brush ready to burn, scientists are warning smoke seasons will also lengthen. It used to be a few days here or there. Now we're talking weeks, even months.
ANTHONY WEXLER: So you've heard a lot about air pollution in Beijing. Yeah, that's what it's like.
SIEGLER: Anthony Wexler directs the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis. Even here, 80 miles from the nearest big fire, he's been measuring air quality readings 10 times worse than the federal standard. In California's Central Valley, the smoke pollution gets trapped and lingers.
WEXLER: You don't want a lot of wind because that - because a lot of wind makes the fire impossible to put out. But if you don't have the wind, then the smoke just sits there. So you're kind of damned if you do and damned if you don't.
SIEGLER: Wexler is leading a team of scientists who are studying the long-term health effects of prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke. It's a relatively new field of research, but their work is urgent in states like California, where towns and even whole cities have been built out into forests where the fire risk is high. On the west side of Redding, the devastation from the Carr Fire is alarming. Homes, power lines, old cars, gas tanks were incinerated. It's not just smoke from burning trees anymore, says Dave Moran at the health department.
MARON: When you get smoke, you know, from structures with benzenes and other cancer-causing formaldehydes and things like that in these materials, that's a whole nother ballgame.
SIEGLER: For now, most people are just staying inside when they can. Being cooped up this long has been hard for Richard Libscomb and his wife Sonya. They're an active outdoor family.
SONYA LIBSCOMB: We're just going day by day depending on how the wind shifts.
R. LIBSCOMB: Right.
S. LIBSCOMB: It'll take it away or bring it in.
SIEGLER: You can detect a reluctant acceptance in the West that prolonged smoke events are the future, just like these more destructive wildfires. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Redding, Calif.
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