As wildfires burn across the western states, hot gusty winds carry plumes of smoke across the country, turning the sun into an eerie yellowish blob shining weakly through hazy East Coast skies. The National Weather Service confirmed that this spectacle hanging over Washington, D.C., the entire week was caused by the fires 2,500 miles away.
Sparked by the freak conditions brought on by the climate crisis—back-to-back heatwaves and intense bolts of lightning—the wildfires have raged across the West Coast for more than a month. At least 30 people have died in California, Oregon, and Washington, and many more are reported missing. The fires have charred four million acres across 10 states since August.
The air quality map shows plumes of smoke blanketing the entire United States and crossing into Mexico and Canada. According to Alexander Gershunov, a research meteorologist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, heatwaves blew the smoke high into the mid-atmosphere, which can carry it across the country. Gershunov explained that wind circulation is typically from west to east, enabling the smoke to move across the country and beyond. There are already reports of smoke appearing in European skies.
Here is a visible satellite image valid at 2pm PDT showing the vast extent of the wildfire smoke. The area in the orange contour is smoke in the mid-upper levels of the atmosphere that has reached as far east as Michigan! The red contour is the dense smoke near the West Coast. pic.twitter.com/J0OEFVA4oD— NWS Weather Prediction Center (@NWSWPC) September 13, 2020
In the midst of this climate chaos, the air quality index in the West Coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington rose to hazardous levels, prompting local authorities to issue public health advisories asking residents to take precautions. As smoke traveled inland over the last few days, similar advisories were issued for Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and the Carolinas.
“Smoke levels have recently fluctuated between unhealthy (red) and hazardous (maroon) for Oregon and Southwest Washington. When smoke levels are hazardous everyone needs to take steps to protect themselves,” reads the Sept. 17 advisory for Oregon.
Some areas of Colorado faced an even more severe situation: “If smoke is thick or becomes thick in your neighborhood you may want to remain indoors. This is especially true for those with heart disease, respiratory illnesses, the very young, and the elderly,” reads the health advisory. It recommends relocating “if smoke is present indoors and is making you ill.”
Health professionals, meanwhile, are contemplating how to mitigate the possible risks to public health and medical complications arising from toxic smoke, especially during the ongoing pandemic and a nearing flu season. Compounding the situation is the awareness that the actual wildfire season in California typically gets going in October, which means there will likely be more fires and more smoke as a result. Hospitals and clinics across the western states are already responding to complaints of respiratory problems in the young and elderly in the affected areas.
“Wildfire smoke contains fine particles (PM 2.5) that can penetrate into lungs and interact with the circulation system. Such fine particles impact the respiratory system through inflammation, oxidative stress, and by reducing the immune function,” Tarik Benmarhnia, an epidemiologist with University of California San Diego (UCSD) said over email. “Such acute exposure to high levels of PM 2.5 from smoke will then exacerbate existing health conditions such as asthma and lung diseases and may lead to hospitalizations or even premature death.”
He cautioned that wildfire smoke will also exacerbate COVID-19 cases: “We may observe more severe cases and an increase in fatality rates in the next few weeks because the wildfire smoke will exacerbate preexisting conditions.”
People whose immune systems have already taken a hit because of COVID-19, air pollution, or the flu are more likely to die.
And with the blanket of smoke already covering the United States and beyond, medical practitioners recommend keeping an eye on the local air quality index and take precautions if the air gets polluted. “It’s going to be a long, drawn out situation and just because you’re not close to wildfires does not mean you’re immune to the hazards the smoke poses,” Sydney Leibel, assistant professor at UCSD’s Department of Pediatrics, said.
“Following the air quality index is the best thing people can do. And the guidance is given to anyone with preexisting conditions such as asthma or chronic inflammatory lung disease (COPD),” Leibel said. He predicted 2020 will see more days with polluted air because the wildfire season will officially set in around October. “The way things are looking, it is going to be this way for the coming months because of the continuing fires. And people are going to have to adjust. Especially with kids.”
Both Leibel and Benmarhnia agree the extreme weather conditions such as heatwaves, hurricanes, and lightning that ignited the California fires are creating unprecedented conditions and pose unique challenges to health practitioners and public policy administrators.
“We might think staying indoors might be the best measure if air quality drops,” Leibel said. “But if the kids are in school and indoors, that might not be a good idea because of the COVID. What we’re dealing with is unprecedented and we’re looking at how these factors interact with the situation involving a pandemic.”
The experts TRNN spoke to recommend wearing a mask. It is the best thing anyone can do under the circumstances. “Wildfire smoke is another reason to wear a mask, especially the N-95 mask, which is designed to filter out hazardous particles such as PM 2.5,” Leibel said.
He added that wearing a mask is also helpful to guard against other respiratory infections that wildfire smoke could trigger in addition to the risks posed by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic: “In the absence of a safe vaccine, social distancing and masking up are effective tools available to us while we wait for the vaccine to arrive. People who are sensitive to air pollution should limit outdoor exposures and should stay indoors while keeping an eye on their local air quality index.”