Smoke From California's Record Wildfires Is Its Own Disaster

6 min
An orange sky filled with wildfire smoke hangs above hiking trails at the Limeridge Open Space in Concord, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2020.  (Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP via Getty Images)

Hundreds of wildfires have scorched over 3 million acres in California this year. That’s the most burned land for any year on record in the state, and we’re still only about halfway through the fire season.

Smoke from those fires polluted the air in the Bay Area for 30 straight days in August and September, prompting the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to issue the longest consecutive string of “Spare the Air” alerts in its history, more than doubling the previous record of 14, set during the Camp Fire in November 2018. Within the recent period of smoke inundation came the six worst air quality days in the Bay Area in 20 years.

“Smoke is everywhere,” Wayne Kino, a pollution control officer with the regional air district, told the agency’s board last week. “Smoke generated at the fires, smoke lingering out at the ocean, is coming in. It's some of the worst air quality we've experienced.”

Emergency room doctors at Sutter’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland have begun to see patients sickened by  the smoke, reporting a flare-up in asthma and emphysema-related admissions.

“We're starting to see a cumulative effect,” said Ronn Berrol, medical director of Alta Bates’ emergency department. “Our numbers are going up — respiratory, throat irritation, coughing, chest pain, heart palpitations. A real gamut of things; the uptick is definitely noticeable.”

In the South Bay, Dr. Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford's allergy and asthma research center, analyzed hospital records during the fires and found admissions of patients with asthma attacks up 10%. For people with stroke-like symptoms, the increase was 23%, including 43% for seniors.

“This is the first time the Bay Area has ever really experienced something like this,” Prunicki said, about the persistently degraded air quality, which she described as “remarkably bad.”

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A Choking Fog of Particulate Matter

While officials have been focused on the severe damage caused by the fires, the profusion of smoke is a disastrous event on its own, touching the lives of nearly every person breathing on the West Coast.

At times the “smokestorm” was so thick, it obscured and filtered the sunlight, bathing the Bay Area in an orange hue reminiscent of one of the bleak sci-fi landscapes in  “Blade Runner 2049.”

Plumes of wildfire smoke blanketed the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego and beyond. Last week, an early-season storm blew the smoke clouds east across the continental U.S., shrouding the sun in faraway states like New York and giving the Bay Area a much needed breather, literally, from the dirty air.

At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has prevented much indoor socializing, the wildfire smoke inhibited Californians’ already restricted access to the outdoors.

The smokestorm could make the worst public health crisis in a century even worse, Prunicki says.

“Exposure to smoke pollution will make you more susceptible to viruses,” she said. “And studies have shown that higher COVID-19 rates are associated with increased air pollution.”

Some research has also found exposure to wildfire smoke associated with slightly lower birth weights and a greater risk of preterm birth.  An ongoing UC Davis study is looking at wildfire smoke's effect on the health of pregnant women and their babies.

The Fall Wildfire Outlook Does Not Look Good

The full consequences of the terrible air quality won’t be known until the fires — already existing and yet to come — stop burning.

The table was set for this year’s record-breaking wildfires by a century of fire suppression that allowed vegetation to build up and feed the recent conflagrations, and a three-degree climb over two decades in California’s average summer temperatures.

The warming temperatures, driven by climate change, exacerbated drought conditions and primed Sierra and North Coast forests to burn. When thunderstorms swept across the hillsides in August, thousands of dry lightning strikes sparked hundreds of fires.

In recent years, Northern California’s biggest fires — like last year’s Kincade Fire in Sonoma County — occurred when Diablo winds ripped across dried-out hillsides full of tinder in the fall.

During a NOAA climate assessment briefing last week, federal meteorologist Brad Pugh said Northern California faces a worse-than-average autumn wildfire outlook.

“With expanding drought and above-normal temperatures during October, November, December, that elevates the chances for continued wildfire risk,” he said.

NOAA estimates the total cost of California’s August wildfires at a billion dollars, minimum.

Jon Brooks contributed to this report.