Wildfire Risk: Where There’s Fire, There’s Smoke

Wildfires in the western U.S. pose a multitude of risks to the people and environments along with the raw destruction of the fire itself. The byproducts of wildfires, the clouds of smoke and other materials released into the air, can lead to both short and long-term health effects for people unlucky enough to be caught in their path.   

Cities along the West Coast and some in the Rocky Mountains are beginning to take steps to confront long-term consequences of wildfires like air quality and public health. Fires in northern California last fall sent thick clouds of smoke floating into San Francisco, almost 150 miles away. Seattle, Washington recently announced plans to convert five buildings into public smoke shelters. 

Atmospheric research from Yale and Harvard shows that over 300 counties in the western U.S. will experience “more severe smoke waves from wildfires, sometimes lasting weeks longer than in years past.” 

Ashland, OR has been dealing with this heavy smoke for at least the past two years. Wildfire officials said the city saw around 40 days of smoke-filled air each summer, and local family physicians recorded noticeable health effects, especially in patients with respiratory diseases like asthma.  

“It was essentially like they’d started smoking again for two months,” said Ashland physician Justin Adams.  

These more intense and extended wildfire seasons are largely believed to be a result of climate change effects producing longer, hotter summers. Scientists say they are concerned that the improvements in air quality made by the U.S. during the 20th century by regulating industrial and car emissions are being quickly eroded by the effects of intense weather like wildfires. 

By Ian MacRonald