Wildfires and Air Pollution: A Dangerous Combination

Air pollution and wildfires are a dangerous combination with long term effects that will cause air quality problems for years to come.

Wildfires spread across forests

Wildfires have been in the news quite a bit lately, occurring in several western states including California, Idaho, Montana and Utah. Reports of ‘red flag warnings‘, countless acres of land destroyed and thousands of people forced to evacuate their homes have filled headlines for months this year. Between poor air quality and destruction of land and homes, these wildfires are a serious problem. What causes this sudden influx of wildfires and how does it affect communities and air quality?


Hot and Dry Conditions

Wildfires leave dead trees

Increasing temperatures and years of drought fuel the severity and amount of wildfires sweeping across the west. California has seen several of these raging wildfires including the Blue Cut fire which led to the evacuation of nearly 80,000 people and the Sand Fire, causing some 20,000 people to evacuate. Authorities from the Los Angeles Fire Department attribute the fast burning blaze to the extremely arid conditions of the landscape, making it difficult for firefighters to control it:

Temperatures hit 101 degrees in the area and dried brush from the parched, drought conditions has helped to spread the fire to about 57 square miles — a size that is bigger than the city of San Francisco (which is 47 square miles). Nearly 3,000 firefighters are battling the flames in extremely volatile conditions. The fires are rolling up and down the canyons in what looks like a wall of flames. Firefighters are having to navigate steep terrains in extremely dry conditions in heavy smoke that clouded the area.


Poor Air Quality

San Francisco having poor air quality due to nearby wildfires

These fires are not only destroying homes, businesses and vegetation, they are creating air quality problems. While there isn’t a fire occurring within the San Francisco city limits, the city is experiencing increasing air quality concerns because of nearby fires. Jack Broadbent of the Air District said the Bay Area has recently issued its second consecutive Spare the Air Alert due to the poor air quality level:

Ongoing smoke continues to impact air quality in the Bay Area. Persistent drought and tree mortality has increased the intensity of wildfires in the region, and combined with our daily load of auto exhaust, is again causing unhealthy air quality.

Windy conditions are bringing smoke from the Soberanes Fire to the Bay Area. Authorities reported that 60 percent of the 81,396 acre fire is contained.

Schools have closed, community activities canceled and people are encouraged to limit their time spent outdoors. Officials from the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District are responsible for informing residents in the local community of the dangers from these wildfires and are calling the wildfire outbreak a “pretty unprecedented situation.” It seems as one wildfire is contained another breaks out, as seen with the Pilot Fire and the Blue Cut Fire.

Air Pollution for Years to Come

Wildfires create dry environments

With these hot and dry weather conditions causing wildfires to rage across thousands of acres, the long term effects are worrisome. Researchers from Harvard and Yale released a study that highlights the dangers of air pollution from wildfires. A fire prediction model revealed that a changing climate will make smoke waves, a term used to describe two or more consecutive days of unhealthy levels of PM 2.5 (particulate matter), occur more often, last longer and be more intense.

An increase in PM 2.5, sky-darkening particles, is a major concern as it is one of the world’s worst killers. Released by power plants burning fossil-fuels, combustion machines and wood burning, it poses significant health risks to sensitive groups like children, the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses. By looking at trends and their prediction model, the team found that people in the area and surrounding states will be affected by these smoke waves for years to come:

Between 2004 and 2009, about 57 million people in the western United States experienced a smoke wave. Between 2046 and 2051, more than 82 million people will likely be affected, mostly in northern California, western Oregon, and the Great Plains, where fire fuel is plentiful. About 13 million more children and seniors — who are at higher risk for respiratory illness — will be affected by smoke waves than are today. In the coming decades, we will be seeing the significant human health consequences from these extreme events in a changing climate. Asthmatic kids are going to the hospital today in California because of the smoke from wildfires. If we can figure out who is most at risk, we can start thinking about smoke evacuations and early alert systems for hospitals and local primary care physicians.

The team behind the study hopes their findings will encourage fire officials to practice new or modified fire management and evacuation programs to better protect at-risk areas and their populations.


Have you been impacted by poor air quality from wildfires?