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'Just Insane': Air Quality Soars Above Safety Threshold as California Wildfires Death Toll Rises

"If this kind of air quality from wildfires doesn't get people concerned, I don't know what will."

Rescue workers

Rescue workers search for human remains at a home that was burned by the Camp Fire on Nov. 15, 2018 in Paradise, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While the death toll has climbed to 80 and about 1,000 people remain missing in California as firefighters continue to battle a pair of destructive blazes, experts have raised concerns about ongoing dangers of poor air quality and the threat it poses to public health.

"If this kind of air quality from wildfires doesn't get people concerned, I don't know what will."
—Dr. John Balmes, University of California at San Francisco

"California's air exceeded world health standards by 60 times last week," Bloomberg noted Monday. "Particulates in the air reached as high as 1,500 micrograms per cubic meter. The threshold set by the World Health Organization is 25. Lower levels on Monday still exceeded the benchmark."

Summarizing the conditions created by the fires—which can cause eyes, nasal passage, and lung irritation, especially among people with respiratory diseases—Rebecca Buchholz, who studies wildfire pollution at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told Bloomberg: "It is just insane. ...It is quite amazing how high these fine-particulate levels are."

"On Friday, residents of smog-choked Northern California woke to learn that their pollution levels now exceed those in cities in China and India that regularly rank among the world," according to New York Times. "In the communities closest to the Paradise fire, an apocalyptic fog cloaked the roads, evacuees wandered in white masks, and officials said respiratory hospitalizations had surged."

Although some relief is in the forecast—SFGate reports that "it should arrive Tuesday night with winds slowly pushing out the smoke and ushering in the first of two rainstorms"—Buchholz explained that the poor air quality will remain even when the fires go out, as smoldering will keep smoke lingering near the ground.

While President Donald Trump has repeatedly laid blame for the current fires on poor forest management and ignored the fact that scientists say "the link between climate change and bigger fires is inextricable," the ongoing blazes have ignited demands for "real climate action to keep fossil fuels in the ground and transition to 100 percent renewables for all."

However, given the Trump administration's tendency to prioritize the fossil fuel industry over public health, even as scientists warn that the global climate crisis will—among other things—continue to make wildfires worse, public health officials are growing increasingly concerned about short- and long-term health impacts.

As the Times outlined:

Research into the long-term health effects of large wildfires is still new. But a growing body of science shows how inhalation of minuscule particles from wood fires can nestle in the folds of lung tissue and do harm to the human immune system.

The body creates zealous responses to what it sees as an alien presence, and those effects can last for years by priming the body to overreact when it encounters subsequent lung irritation, said Dr. Kari Nadeau, a pediatric allergy and asthma specialist at Stanford.

In short, researchers like Dr. Nadeau believe that a person's short-term exposure to wildfire can spur a lifetime of asthma, allergy, and constricted breathing.

"If this kind of air quality from wildfires doesn't get people concerned, I don't know what will," concluded Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonologist at the University of California at San Francisco.

While those affected by the thick smoke have had to get creative as stores run out of facemasks recommended by authorities—from launching a crowdsource fundraiser to buy respirators for those who can't afford them to cobbling together do-it-yourself air purifiers—firefighters are still working to contain the fires. 

The Camp Fire in Butte County—the state's deadliest wildfire on record, claiming at least 77 lives—has burned some 151,000 acres, is only 66 percent contained, and isn't expected to be fully extinguished until Nov. 30, according to a Monday morning CalFire update. The Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, which has killed at least three people and burned nearly 97,000 acres, is 94 percent contained and should be extinguished by Thursday.

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