In California’s smoke-filled horizon, it’s become hard to breathe
For West Coast residents, the anxiety that comes with fire season is all too familiar.
It’s common to have an emergency bag — filled with items like a first-aid kit, a flashlight, a portable cellphone battery pack and a map marked with at least two evacuation routes — at the ready. And along with the emergency bag, a plan at the ready for places to stay if you need to evacuate.
But this year, with air so thick with smoke it’s hard to breathe, the fires, which span beyond California into Oregon and Washington, seem worse.
And according to experts, that’s because they are.
The unprecedented wildfires that continue to cause havoc on the West Coast have claimed the lives of at least eight people.
Quite literally, the West Coast is burning — from the orange skies in San Francisco to the ash rain in Southern California, the Golden State looks like it has been given the Hollywood dystopia treatment.
But it’s not a dystopia — it’s a reality: The climate crisis has arrived — and on the West Coast, people are getting a front-row view of just how bad it is via the air they breathe.
“Climate change has not just made the extreme heat waves that coincided with the fires worse,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told CNN earlier this week.
“The bigger effect is the more subtle, long-term warming. That couple of degrees of (average) warming over decades … you don’t notice it as much, but it’s still there lurking in the background, sucking extra moisture out of the vegetation and the soil.”
Breathing: A ‘luxury’ during fire season
Satellite images from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reveal that the wildfire smoke continued to blanket most of the West Coast on Thursday morning.
Because of this, the air quality remains moderate to even hazardous across this region, including in all major cities.
But West Coast residents don’t need NOAA to tell them: They just need to step outside and breathe — or attempt to.
As a recent Time magazine journalist noted, during fire season in California “breathing feels like a luxury for more and more months of the year.”
As of Thursday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District said a smoke advisory remained in effect for most of Los Angeles County and parts of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Fortunately, many people in the fire areas are already equipped with masks (unfortunately, that’s due to their concerns over catching or spreading COVID).
Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonologist at University of California San Francisco, told CNN that an N95 or an N100 respirator, certified by NIOSH, is the best respiratory protection from both Covid-19 and PM2.5, the tiny lung-damaging pollution particles that are found in the worst concentrations of wildfire smoke.
Cloth masks, he said, prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 — “but offer little protection from wildfire smoke.”
Balmes recommends that people stay indoors with the windows closed and put central ventilation on recirculate mode, or create a clean air room with a portable HEPA air filter device.
The California Air Resources Board echoed similar tips, adding that people should listen and watch for air quality reports and warnings.
“Smoke can hurt eyes, irritate lungs and worsen chronic heart and lung disease,” the agency said in a tweet.
Smoky skies and ash rains
Fires have destroyed over 3,900 structures in California, as of Thursday, and at least 14,000 firefighters are battling 29 major fires up and down the state.
Authorities in many communities have had to order mandatory evacuations, and more than 170,000 customers recently went without power to prevent future blazes.
And with all the fires comes the bad air quality.
“Hurts to breathe, extremely light headed,” another Twitter user wrote. “Feeling so sick.”
“Anybody else’s eyes been burning from all this smoke and bad air quality or is it just me??” wrote another.
Some, like Juliana Park, narrowly escaped one of the many fires while on a getaway over Labor Day Weekend.
The 24-year-old, who lives in Mountain View, had gone on a five-hour road trip from the Bay Area toward Sierra National Forest for a backpacking trip last Saturday. Her group had hiked for about an hour when they heard lightning.
“That was our cue to turn around,” she told CNN. “We didn’t have cell service either, so we thought it would be safest to go back as soon as possible.”
As they walked back to the car, Park said they started to see the sky was a different color.
“It was orange, but also very gray,” she said. “I was wearing a white shirt and you could see the black ash on my shirt, and the white ash falling on top of our eyelashes. When we got to the car, we had a red Honda, you could see on the hood black and white ash. It was getting harder to breath and see.”
They made it home safely, but passed a smaller fire on their way, which Park posted a video of on Twitter. Later in the week, Park woke up to orange Bay Area skies.
“The smoke and ash are acting like nature’s version of an Instagram filter,” CNN meteorologist Judson Jones said this week. “The particles in the air are refracting sunlight similar to the way small air particles do when the sun sets or rises.”
Massive plumes of smoke generated by the wildfires raging across the state has led to the longest stretch of unhealthy air quality alerts on record in the San Francisco Bay Area, with 25 straight days of Spare The Air alerts, Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokeswoman Erin DeMerritt told CNN.
The previous record was 14 consecutive days during the 2018 Camp Fire that devastated the city of Paradise.
Park and her roommate kept all their apartment windows closed.
Climate change concerns
If you have paid attention to the headlines — and the global climate change activists — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the fires have worsened.
Even earlier this year — in pre-pandemic times — Australia saw its own devastating wildfires that burned across the country last year and into 2020.
A new analysis published in March showed that the fires were made far more likely and intense by the climate crisis. Scientists found that the chances of the kind of extreme weather that triggered the blazes have increased by more than 30% since 1900, and that fire conditions like this are at least four times more likely than they were at the start of the 20th century.
Still, it’s hard to understand the impact when it’s not necessarily close to home.
“I would say growing up in Orange County, I didn’t really pay attention to the fires,” Park said. “But I think we can all say no matter how long you’ve lived in California, that the fires have gotten considerably worse.”
Over 3.1 million acres, twice the size of Delaware, have burned in California as a result of the wildfires ravaging the state, according to a Cal Fire press release issued Thursday.
“This year’s fire season has been a record-breaking year, in not only the total amount of acres burned, but 6 of the top 20 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in 2020,” said Cal Fire.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has pointed to climate change as a primary factor.
This time last year, California saw 4,927 fires that burned 118,000 acres, according to the governor. In 2020, there have been 7,606 blazes so far.
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown said more than 300,000 acres have burned and for the parts that aren’t yet on fire, “the worst fire conditions in three decades persist.”
And in Washington, more acres were burned on Monday than were charred in the past 12 fire seasons, Gov. Jay Inslee said.
Bottom line? “We have been more and more bad air quality days due to increased wildfires driven by climate change,” said Balmes, the pulmonologist.
And so, West Coasters must be even more careful.
“The people at greatest risk of adverse health effects from wildfire smoke are those with pre-existing hear and lung disease,” Balmes said. “That said, even healthy people may be at increased for respiratory infections, including COVID-19.”
You can check the current air quality in your location here.