For West Coast residents, the anxiety that comes with fire season is all too familiar.
It is common to have a emergency bag – stocked with items like a first aid kit, flashlight, cell phone battery, and a marked map of at least two escape routes – close at hand. And with the emergency bag, a handy plan for where to stay if you need to evacuate.
But this year, with the air so smoky it’s hard to breathe, the fires, that extend beyond California into Oregon and Washington, seem worse.
And according to experts, that’s because they are.
The unprecedented wildfires that continue to wreak havoc on the West Coast have claimed the lives of at least eight people.
Literally, the west coast is burning — from orange sky in San Francisco to the ash rain in Southern California, the Golden State seems to have received 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 get a big picture of the gravity of the situation via the air they breathe.
“Climate change has not only worsened the extreme heat waves that coincided with the fires,” said Daniel Swain, a climatologist at UCLA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. told CNN earlier this week.
“The biggest effect is the more subtle, long-term warming. Those few degrees of (average) warming over decades…you don’t notice it as much, but it’s still there, lurking in the background, sucking in the heat. additional moisture from vegetation and soil.”
Breathing: a “luxury” during the fire season
Satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reveal smoke from wildfires continued to blanket most of the West Coast Thursday morning.
Because of this, the air quality remains moderate or even dangerous in this regionincluding in all major cities.
But West Coast residents don’t need NOAA to tell them: they just need to get out and breathe — or try.
Like a recent Time magazine noted one reporter, during California fire season, “breathing feels like a luxury for more and more months of the year.”
From Thursday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District said a smoke advisory remains in effect for most of Los Angeles County and parts of Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.
Fortunately, many people in the fire zones are already equipped with masks (unfortunately, this is due to their concerns about catching or spreading COVID).
Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonologist at the University of California, San Francisco, told CNN that a NIOSH-certified N95 or N100 respirator is the best respiratory protection against Covid-19. and PM2.5the tiny, lung-damaging pollution particles found in the worst concentrations of wildfire smoke.
Cloth masks, he said, prevent the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 – “but offer little protection from wildfire smoke.”
Balmes recommends people stay indoors with windows closed and put central ventilation on recirculation mode, or create a clean-air room with a portable HEPA air filter.
The California Air Resources Board echoed similar advice, adding that people should listen to and monitor air quality reports and warnings.
“The smoke can injure the eyes, irritate the lungs and aggravate chronic heart and lung disease,” the agency said. said in a tweet.
Smoky skies and ash rain
Fires destroyed more than 3,900 structures in California as of Thursday, and at least 14,000 firefighters are battling 29 major blazes across the state.
Authorities in many communities had to order mandatory evacuations and more than 170,000 customers were recently left without power to prevent future fires.
And with all fires comes poor air quality.
“I have trouble breathing, my head is extremely light,” wrote another Twitter user. “I feel so sick.”
“Did someone else’s eyes burn from all that smoke and poor air quality or is it just me??” wrote another one.
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 taken a five-hour drive from the Bay Area to the Sierra National Forest for a backpacking trip last Saturday. His group had been walking for about an hour when they heard lightning.
“That was our signal to turn around,” she told CNN. “We also didn’t have cell service, so we thought it would be safer to come back as soon as possible.”
As they walked back to the car, Park said they began 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 our eyelashes. When we got to the car, we had a red Honda, you could see on the black hood and white ash It was getting harder and harder to breathe and see.
They made it home safely, but came across a small fire on their way, which Park posted a video on Twitter. Later that week, Park woke up to orange Bay Area skies.
“The smoke and ash acts like the natural version of an Instagram filter,” said CNN meteorologist Judson Jones. said this week. “Particles in the air refract sunlight the same way small air particles do when the sun sets or rises.”
Huge plumes of smoke generated by wildfires raging across the state have led to the longest string 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 campfire that devastated the town of Paradise.
Park and her roommate kept all the windows in their apartment closed.
Climate Change Concerns
If you’ve been paying attention to the headlines — and global climate change activists — it should come as no surprise that the fires have gotten worse.
Even earlier this year – in pre-pandemic times – Australia experienced its own devastating wildfires which burned across the country last year and into 2020.
A a new analysis published in March showed that fires have been made much more likely and intense by the climate crisis. Scientists have found that the chances of the type of extreme weather that started the fires have increased by more than 30% since 1900, and that fire conditions like this are at least four times more likely than they are were at the beginning 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, the fires have gotten significantly worse.”
More than 3.1 million acres, twice the size of Delaware, have burned in California as a result of wildfires ravaging the state, according to a Cal Fire press release released Thursday.
Governor Gavin Newsom pointed out to climate change as a primary factor.
This time last year, California had 4,927 fires that burned 118,000 acres, according to the governor. In 2020, there have been 7,606 fires so far.
In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown said more than 300,000 acres had burned and for parts not yet burning, “the worst fire conditions in three decades persist.”
And in Washington, more acres were burned Monday than have been charred in the past 12 fire seasons, Gov. Jay Inslee said.
At the end of the line ? “We have had more and more poor air quality days due to the increase in forest fires caused by climate change,” said Balmes, the pulmonologist.
And so West Coasters must be even more careful.
“The people most at risk of adverse health effects from wildfire smoke are those with pre-existing hearing and lung conditions,” Balmes said. “That said, even healthy people may be more prone to respiratory infections, including COVID-19.”
You can check the current air quality to your location here.