USA — Imagine the smoggiest day in the Inland region, multiply the poor air quality by three times and that represents the smoke and ash that fills the skies during a major wildfire, environmental researchers said.
An analysis of some of the largest wildfires in seven Western states over the past 12 years shows that the air can be worse than chronically polluted Beijing, where residents wear surgical masks and the haze limits visibility to less than 50 yards.
The information is important because the future will bring even more noxious air, the researchers said.
Climate change will compound the problem as forests and brush become drier from extreme heat and decreased rain and snow, and the wildfire season stretches longer.
We can expect more fires as we go forward, and they carry dangerous health risks, said Alyson Kenward, senior scientist at Climate Central, a nonprofit group in Princeton, N.J., that researches climate change.
The Climate Central report was one of two recent studies of wildfire smoke. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based nonprofit environmental action group, found that even in areas hundreds of miles from flames, residents health can be threatened by the smoke.
Experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council said communities must protect themselves by preparing for climate change, much as California has done with its climate adaptation plan, which includes strategies such as limiting residential development in areas prone to wildfires.
The group also advocates additional air monitoring stations across the country and more frequent campaigns reporting air quality conditions. California has 84 air monitoring stations, the most of any state.
Air quality alerts, like those provided by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, are useful for residents, especially those with chronic lung disease, who suffer difficulty breathing, tightness in their chests, coughing and phlegm during wildfires, said Dr. Hassan Bencheqroun, a Riverside pulmonologist.
Climate Central studied the fires of 2003, including the Grand Prix and Old fires in the San Bernardino Mountains, and the siege of 2007 near Lake Arrowhead and San Diego.
Wildfires burning within 50 to 100 miles of a city routinely caused air quality to be five to 15 times worse than normal, and often two to three times worse than the worst non-fire day of the year, the study showed.
The effects of fine-particle pollution including smoke and diesel soot are well documented. The particles, which are so small that they bypass the bodys normal defenses, are linked to any array of illness and disease, including asthma, lung impairment, heart disease and cancer, and are a suspected factor in autism and even obesity.
The Natural Resources Defense Council report cites research from UC Irvine showing that the wildfires in Southern California in 2003 resulted in 69 premature deaths, 778 hospitalizations, 1,431 emergency department visits and 47,605 outpatient visits.
During wildfires, Bencheqroun sees a spike in office visits and patient calls.
On those days, the phone in my clinic rings off the hook, he said. Most people do not know that even if they dont live close to (a fire), even if the air looks clear to the naked eye, that doesnt mean the particles are not there anymore.
This year, during the fires near Idyllwild in July, 17-year-old TaMyra Ramsay, of Riverside, ended up in the emergency room with an asthma attack.
The North High School senior already has given up volleyball and other sports because of her lung disease and said she fears for the future.
Just walking from one end of the campus to my car, I have to sit and rest, said Ramsay, who uses an inhaler and nebulizer treatments to open her airways.
Ramsay finds she can breathe easier when she visits relatives in Orange County.
Its ridiculous how noticeable it is, she said.
When the air is smoky, Bencheqroun recommends that people stay indoors, with the windows closed. If they have to go outside, they should avoid physical activity and wear a mask or cover their mouth and nose with a wet handkerchief to filter out some of the dangerous particles, he said.
In its report, the Natural Resources Defense Council recommends educating the public about the dangers of wildfire smoke and working to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.