California's Fires Are Affecting Cities' Air Quality Dozens of Miles Away

One idea for a long-term fix: Communities could designate clean air centers where residents can spend time in filtered air for free.
By Francie Diep ,

Fire trucks pass by approaching flames during the Carr fire near Whiskeytown, California, on July 27th, 2018.

(Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

With 18 wildfires burning across California, many Westerners are now contending with unhealthy, smoky outdoor air. Depending on wind patterns, even cities far away from a fire may be affected—on Wednesday, for example, children and older adults in Reno, Nevada, were advised not to stay outdoors for prolonged periods because of smoke brought in from fires 100 miles away or more, USA Today reports. A look at California's air-quality website on Thursday showed the air in large swaths in northern and central parts of the state were rated as "unhealthy" to "hazardous."

Climate change is expected to up the intensity and frequency of wildfires in the West. What does that mean for people's health in the long run? For healthy adults, it's thought that a few weeks of smoke exposure in a lifetime may not have much of an effect at all. However, a new study suggests it's possible for increasing wildfires to significantly raise the number of bad air days in one place—a scenario that shifts wildfire smoke exposure from an unlucky event that some healthy adults may experience, once in a while, without serious consequence, to a chronic problem. The study, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that there are now fewer bad days for particulate air pollution around the country because of air-pollution controls. But in the West, including parts of Oregon, California, Nevada, and Idaho, there have been more such days since 1988 because of forest fires.

It's difficult to study the long-term effects of wildfire smoke exposure, so it's not known what a smokier future means for most. However, given the known short-term effects of wildfire smoke—including more hospital visits for asthma, heart symptoms, and respiratory diseases—perhaps it's worth investing in some strategies to reduce people's smoke exposure on bad days. Last year, when the Thomas Fire blurred out the sky around Pacific Standard's headquarters in Santa Barbara, California, we collected tips from experts for both individuals and city governments. For the city:

Experts encourage communities to designate "clean air centers," where people can spend time in filtered air for free. There's precedent for this: Many cities already offer air-conditioned public cooling centers, recognizing that deaths increase across cities when it's hot.

Doctors could also warn their patients when fire season is coming, making sure they have the needed medications for any lung and heart conditions. Home air filters are also a good idea.

And for those who must still live and work under smoke: 

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