Millions Breathing Dirty Air as California Wine Country Burns

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By Carolyn Whetzel and Jennifer Lu

The most destructive wildfires in California’s history have exposed more than 7 million people in the San Francisco region to unhealthy levels of air pollution with 1 million facing air quality that the EPA would deem extremely unhealthy.

The 15 active fires, which have burned more than 217,500 acres in the state and caused at least 40 deaths, are exacerbating air pollution in a region that already exceeds federal standards for particulate matter. State air regulators warn that pollution levels in areas nearest the fire are 10 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s permissible exposure limits, and local hospitals are reporting an uptick in patients with respiratory illness as a result.

While the fires burn, neighboring states are also watching whether the pollution will blow in their direction.

The health effects could linger even after the state gets the fires under control, Tony Wexler, director of the University of California, Davis Air Quality Research Center, told Bloomberg Environment.

“The lifetime of particles in the air is usually a few weeks,” he said. “Winds are going to die down and firefighters will get the fires under control, but there is going to still be some terrible air quality here. After the fire is finished, smoke still rises from smoldering that could continue for up to a week.”

Hospitals See Increase

Since the fires started, Sutter Solano Medical Center has seen people with pre-existing health conditions, such as asthma and cardio-pulmonary obstruction disease, that are having difficulty breathing, hospital spokeswoman Angela Borchert told Bloomberg Environment.

“We also seeing patients experiencing headaches and sore throats,” she said.

Seven San Francisco hospitals recently reported 24 patients treated for breathing problems, most with pre-existing conditions, Brent Andrew, a spokesman for Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, told Bloomberg Environment.

Breathing microscopic particles can exacerbate asthma, cause respiratory problems, and is linked to increased risk of heart attacks, according to the EPA.

California to Seek Exemption

States can ask the EPA to exclude pollution from wildfires when demonstrating compliance with federal air quality standards, an exclusion known as the exceptional events policy. To claim this exemption, state air agencies must show that pollution spikes in poor air quality areas were influenced by natural or one-time man-made events that could not be controlled.

The nine-county Bay Area is out of attainment with the EPA’s air quality standards for particulate matter, so the state will ask the EPA to treat the fires as exceptional events if needed, Sylvia Vanderspek, a branch manager at the California Air Resources Board, told Bloomberg Environment.

The EPA in recent years has sought to improve the process state officials use to receive these air pollution exemption. State officials had said they needed more guidance on what information would be necessary to receive that exceptional events exception.

Downwind States Unaffected

While smoke has swamped San Francisco and drifted as far the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, Wexler said the smoke probably wouldn’t affect downwind states.

“For the air to move from California to Arizona or Nevada,” Wexler said, “they’d have to go over a high pass.”

Oregon to the north has not been affected by smoke from California, but had to account for wildfires in British Columbia this summer, Rachel Sakata, an air quality planner in the state Department of Environmental Quality, told Bloomberg Environment.

“You might find that you’ve got fires burning all around you, but the closest fire might not be the one impacting the community close by,” Sakata said. “It might be smoke lingering from a fire far away.”

Real-time monitors are used to forecast the air quality, but it will take months for California to analyze the data and demonstrate the increased pollution came from wildfire smoke and not another source, Jim Roberts, a chemical scientist at NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., told Bloomberg Environment.

Sara Strachan, an analyst at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, monitors smoke plumes from wildfires by mapping data from multiple satellites to a website she updates daily during wildfire season. While smoke from California is drifting over Idaho, the particles are so high in elevation that they don’t affect the surface monitors, Strachan told Bloomberg Environment.

Since Idaho doesn’t have a lot of industry or cars spewing particle matter into the air, a lot of its particle pollution comes from wildfires in and outside the state, primarily Washington and Oregon.

Exceptional May Events Become Less Exceptional

The increasing frequency of wildfires in the west could increase the number of extremely high smoke days and the number of hospital admissions due to smoke, according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters.

Respiratory admissions due to wildfire smoke in the western regions of the U.S. could add 61 to 178 hospital visits over six years.

Counties in central and southern California, northwestern Washington, the greater Denver area, and Salt Lake City would see the greatest increase in wildfire smoke-related respiratory admissions, researchers at Yale and Harvard predicted.

“We’ve definitely seen more wildfire activity in the past few years, and this year was a particularly bad one,” Sakata said.

And though these events get excluded from the air quality data, it doesn’t change the fact that people are breathing unhealthy air, Sakata said.

“When it comes down to it, smoke is smoke. It all affects a person’s health.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Carolyn Whetzel in Los Angeles at CWhetzel@bna.com and Jennifer Lu in Washington at jlu1@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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