Colossal, hellish wildfires spreading uncontrollably across the American West have killed at least 35 people in the past week. The area is no stranger to deadly infernos; just 2 years ago, the infamous Camp Fire killed 80 people in Paradise, California in a single day. This season is just beginning and is already breaking records. Over 5 million acres have been burned across California, Oregon, and Washington–the largest season ever recorded in California history. Over 10,000 fires have expelled hazardous smoke at levels dangerous to human life for western Americans.
Millions of residents awoke last week to a dystopian landscape that looked directly out of Blade Runner 2049. The sky was painted deep orange, sometimes even blood red, and blotted out the sun. A dense, choking haze led to sore throats, stinging eyes, and even difficulty breathing. When wildfires burn, they release mixtures of solids and aerosols containing organic, carbon, or metallic compounds. US government agencies use the Air Quality Index (AQI) to measure air pollution levels. Index values range from 0-500 and roughly correspond with the amount of PM2.5 in the air. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the risk to public health. The median AQI in New York City was 48 in 2019, levels above 100 are considered unhealthy, and levels above 300 are considered hazardous.
Cities and towns across the West Coast have regularly recorded Air Quality Index (AQI) levels between 400-450 over the past few weeks and months. The most polluted cities in the world such as New Delhi, India average PM2.5 levels of around 150. The recent wildfires are producing pollution levels more than 3 times that. The World Health Organization recommended safe level for PM2.5 is 10 μg/m3. At levels over 100 micrograms, the air literally becomes toxic to breathe. Even short term exposure leads to increased mortality rates, hospital admissions for heart and lung causes, and emergency room visits. These adverse health effects particularly affect children, elderly, and those with pre existing heart or lung diseases like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
With a “once-in-a-generation” fire season and drought striking the West seemingly every year, the effects of climate change seem more and more dire. Two years ago, the federal government released a report predicting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels could triple the frequency of severe fires across the United States. With the problem too large for states and localities to solve on their own, and the federal government gutted by climate change skeptics and industry lobbyists, the true effects are still to be seen. With increased wildfires across the world, though, their deadliness beyond the initial blaze is becoming evermore clear.
Take Australia, for example, whose record-breaking wildfires became international news this January. PM2.5 levels only averaged around 100 μg/m3 for a few weeks there. A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia estimated that at least 445 deaths and over 4,000 hospitalizations could be attributed to the bushfire smoke and pollution, dwarfing the 33 deaths that were a direct result of the fires. In 2010, major heat waves and wildfires around Moscow, Russia led to PM2.5 above 150 μg/m3. This corresponded to an increase of 11,000 excess deaths from non accidental causes. In case after case, hazardous air pollution levels caused by wildfires have been followed by clear increases in mortality and hospitalizations, not to mention long term effects. These indirect deaths are far larger than the direct casualties of the actual fires.
Adding to the cruelty is the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The CDC has already warned that “people with Covid-19 are at increased risk from wildfire smoke.” Research has shown that after bad fire seasons, subsequent flu seasons are three to five times worse. The two disasters seem to feed right into each other, a phenomenon that experts predict to only get worse in the coming decades. And like with Covid-19, wildfires also disproportionately affect people of color and lower socioeconomic status as they suffer from higher rates of preexisting conditions. Older Black people, for example, are three times more likely to be hospitalized for respiratory conditions because of smoke.
Chronic exposure to air pollution and smoke is among the leading contributors to death and disease worldwide. Higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, and brain disease all are linked to air pollution. While these wildfires may be a relatively short-term event in comparison to cities that have endured high pollution levels for decades, the exposure rate is strikingly high. When public health researchers look back at how these massive wildfires affected the population, they are likely to find notably worse health outcomes for those who were in California, Oregon, and Washington in August and September of 2020 than those who were located elsewhere in America.
The American disaster system is extremely reactive and designed around short term, high profile events. Flashy hurricanes and blizzards are the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s bread and butter. Drawn-out, long term crises, however, confound the system. A proactive response would have included a widespread emergency distribution of HEPA filters, N95+ masks, and air purifiers up and down the West Coast. It is impossible for governments to be proactive and protect their citizens against smoke pollution, however, when they are desperately fighting to save their lives and property from flames.
The most terrifying facet of recent record setting natural disasters is that the realization that they are the new normal. Traumatizing events of epic scales seem inevitable. And while individuals can take steps to protect themselves, there’s only so much they can do. Ultimately, without a government willing and able to tackle entrenched structural problems, Americans will be left playing with fire.