The health impacts of wildfire smoke

Articles on U.S. wildfires don’t often show a photo of someone gasping in a hospital bed or felled by a heart attack. Yet an increasing body of evidence suggests that the biggest societal impacts of increasing wildland fire are happening in our own bodies, the result of tiny particulates spewed in vast amounts.

Millions of people across the western U.S. coughed and hacked their way through the summer and autumn of 2020, when some of the region’s worst fires on record ripped across the landscape. It’s too soon to know the full range of health consequences from that summer’s blazes, but there’s already evidence now in peer review that more than 100 deaths may be attributable to 2020’s late-summer smoke in Washington state alone. If another early estimate is on target, the smoke may have contributed to between 1,200 and 3,000 premature deaths in California among people 65 and older.

Research on wildfire smoke and health is advancing hand in hand with the threat itself. The western fires of 2020 came soon after several disastrously hot, fiery years in California, which spawned a grim bumper crop of case studies. Meanwhile, an expanding array of satellite imagery is helping pinpoint where and

— source | Bob Henson | May 10, 2021

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“Smoke waves” from wildfires are getting worse

Shrouded by smoke from a fire in California’s parched San Bernardino Mountains, schools in the Victor Valley closed their doors earlier this month. The Pilot Fire was contained on Monday — shortly before the Blue Cut Fire broke out, billowing soot and ash over the valley afresh, forcing further closures. Researchers have taken to using the term “smoke wave” to describe the type of multiday impacts from wildfire pollution that were experienced this month in the Victor Valley. The valley contains hundreds of thousands of residents as well as the thoroughfare linking Las Vegas with Los Angeles.

scientists from Yale and Harvard calculated that 82 million residents of the West will experience smoke waves that are two days or longer during a six-year period beginning in the late 2040s. That’s a 44 percent increase from a six-year period last decade.

— source | 2016

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Spike in Alaska wildfires is worsening global warming

The devastating rise in Alaska’s wildfires is making global warming even worse than scientists expected, US government researchers said on Wednesday. The sharp spike in Alaska’s wildfires, where more than 5 million acres burned last year, are destroying a main buffer against climate change: the carbon-rich boreal forests, tundra and permafrost that have served as an enormous carbon sink. The state’s boreal forests, peat-rich tundra, and permafrost hold about 53% of US carbon. Alaska accounts for about 18% of US land mass. Alaska currently absorbs about 3.7m tonnes of carbon a year, the USGS assessment found. But that vast storehouse of carbon has been breached by warming temperatures, thawing permafrost – and wildfire.

— source | 2016

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Wildfire smoke is loaded with microbes

If you’re unfortunate enough to breathe wildfire smoke, you’re getting a lungful of charred plant material, noxious gases, and — if the fire tore through human structures — incinerated synthetic materials. All across the board, it’s bad stuff, proven to be a severe detriment to human health, particularly for those with respiratory conditions like asthma. And not to pile on the worries, but that haze also turns out to be loaded with microbes like bacteria and fungi.

The problem is, scientists have only just begun to study this smoky microbial community. That led a pair of researchers to publish a new perspective piece in the journal Science on December 18 calling for a multidisciplinary push to better characterize these microbes and determine how they might be making wildfire smoke even worse for human lungs. “It’s not just comprised of particulate matter and gases, but it also has a significant living component in it,” says University of Idaho fire scientist Leda Kobziar, co-author of the piece. Wildfire smoke may actually spread beneficial organisms for an ecosystem, Kobziar adds, but “what might the consequences be for the spread of pathogens that we know are airborne?”

But hold on a tick: Shouldn’t the microbes get cooked to death in the flames? Well, that’s not giving these microbes any credit. You see, a wildfire burns with different intensities at different spots as it moves across a landscape. “At the smallest scales, complete combustion is coupled with incomplete

— source | Matt Simon | Dec 26, 2020

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More than 500,000 People in Oregon Flee Wildfires

Authorities in Oregon now say more than 500,000 people statewide have been forced to evacuate because of wildfires. That’s over 10% of the state’s 4.2 million population. More than 1,400 square miles (3,625 square kilometers) have burned this week in the state. Authorities say the wildfire activity was particularly acute Thursday afternoon in northwestern Oregon as hot, windy conditions continued.

— source | Sep 11, 2020

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Burning injustice: why the California wildfires are a class crisis

Fifty four degrees centigrade is the highest temperature ever reliably recorded on earth. Registered in California’s Death Valley only two months ago, it signalled what was to come. The next day fires erupted in the north of the state that eventually snowballed into the largest single fire in its history. Among the shocking scenes of red skies and destroyed homes, we might forget that it was only as little as two years ago that the last fire season records in California were broken. The smoke from those flames clouded the skies as far away as New York City. Yet, the vision it presented of our future could not have been clearer.

Whether it is the flames of the wet Amazon or the fires of the frozen Arctic, wildfires have become the canary in the gold mine. The urgency of a fire is a far cry from the dry scientific language of global warming. They represent everything that is terrifying about climate change. Fire rips through the natural and physical world, leaving behind a blackened and uninhabitable landscape, like watching the next century play out on fast forward. All that is left is a wasteland, showing us, in the words of T.S. Elliot’s poem, “fear in a handful of dust”.

Of the 295,000 people that were evacuated in the 2018 California inferno, two names in particular hit

— source | Ben Tippet | 8 Oct 2020

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Arctic wildfires are emitting 35% more carbon compared to 2019

According to a recent report by the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, carbon emissions in the Arctic have surpassed last year’s emissions by 35%. The latest data shows that about 245 megatonnes of CO2 have been released in 2020 so far. This is a far higher figure than the entirety of last year, when 181 megatonnes of CO2 were released as a result of wildfires. The data further shows that the peak month for wildfires in 2020 was July, with over 600 wildfires reported in late July as compared to 400 wildfires in the same time frame last year. More devastating is the fact that similar periods from 2003 through 2018 experienced an average of 100 wildfires.

— source | Sep 2, 2020

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West Coast Fires Scorch Millions of Acres & Blot Out the Sun

in California, where people in the Bay Area and across Northern California woke up Wednesday to dark orange skies as a blanket of smoke from the state’s massive climate change-fueled wildfires smothered the region. The thick smoke blotted out so much sunlight, temperatures dropped well below forecasters’ predictions, with meteorologists comparing the effect to a nuclear winter.

The unprecedented conditions came as the West Coast faces a fire season that has killed at least seven people, forced major evacuations and already burned two-and-a-half million acres in California alone. That’s 20 times the land burned last year, and there are months left in California’s ever-growing fire season. Winds from some of California’s more than 20 massive fires and from blazes as far away as Oregon and Washington blew into the Bay Area to create the conditions, which some described as “apocalyptic.” This is Oakland resident Carljuan Anderson.

— source | Sep 10, 2020

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Wildfires Reveal California’s Reliance on Incarcerated Firefighters

California, where climate-fueled wildfires are engulfing the state. Crews are battling more than 600 fires, that have killed at least seven people. Governor Gavin Newsom said Monday 300 lightning strikes overnight had sparked 10 new fires. The biggest group of fires, in Northern California around Napa, is now 25% contained. So far this year, 7,000 fires have destroyed 1.4 million acres, compared to 56,000 acres burned at the same time last year. Tens of thousands of firefighters have been deployed across the state to combat the blazes, which are raging as California also battles a record heat wave and the deadly pandemic.

This comes as the state’s prison firefighter program, which annually deploys thousands of incarcerated firefighters to the frontlines for just $1 an hour, faces diminished numbers because of the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, Governor Newsom ordered the release of some 8,000 incarcerated people, including some from the prison fire camps, as COVID-19 swept through the state’s prisons and camps. Several fire camps faced COVID outbreaks in July. Now, as advocates demand mass release for incarcerated people at risk due to the pandemic, more than 1,300 incarcerated firefighters are currently fighting the blazes ravaging California.

— source | Aug 25, 2020

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Smoke from 2015 Indonesian fires may have caused 100,000 premature deaths

In the fall of 2015, hazardous levels of smoke from agricultural fires blanketed much of Equatorial Asia. Schools and businesses closed, planes were grounded and tens of thousands sought medical treatment for respiratory illness. In a new study, Harvard University researchers and their colleagues estimate that the 2015 smoke event caused upwards of 100,000 deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Fires started by farmers in Indonesia, particularly those producing palm oil and timber for wood pulp and paper, are the main culprits of haze events in this region. The fires, largely in coastal peatlands, burn at relatively low temperatures and can smolder for weeks or even months before extinguishing, resulting in lots of smoke.

— source | 2016/09

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