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May 6, 2021

How dangerous is wildfire smoke?

Last week, California’s top legislative leaders unveiled a plan to spend more than half a billion dollars on efforts aimed at protecting the state from catastrophic wildfires.

The plan builds on the governor’s proposal in January to spend $1 billion on wildfire prevention and resiliency efforts and includes money for things like vegetation thinning and home fixes meant to keep them from burning.

“With California facing another extremely dry year, it is critical that we get a head start on reducing our fire risk,” the three leaders — Gov. Gavin Newsom; Toni G. Atkins, the state Senate’s president pro tempore; and Anthony Rendon, the Assembly speaker — said in a statement.

That’s not an exaggeration.

My colleague Vindu Goel recently reported that this year has been so dry that two state agencies have warned there could be water supply cuts to homes, businesses and farmers. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that researchers who analyze moisture levels in plants have been shocked by some of what they’ve been seeing.

In other words, California urgently needs to make progress before fire season hits.

Given the record-obliterating blazes we saw during last year’s season — which started really early — it’s easy to summon a sense of urgency.

More than 5 million acres burned across the West, exhausting firefighters and leaving policymakers scrambling to implement solutions long sought by experts, including Indigenous fire practitioners, like increasing the number of acres treated with prescribed burns. (That’s when fires are intentionally set under conditions when the blazes will be manageable, to clear overgrown plants that could fuel an out-of-control conflagration.)

But one factor that experts say has been less understood is how wildfire smoke that spread across the state, fouling the air for millions of Californians for weeks, could cause negative health effects, both during fires and in the longer term.

The connection between the tiny particles that make up air pollution and respiratory health problems is unambiguous, experts say.

But how dangerous is the wildfire smoke that turned the skies of the Bay Area an unsettling ocher shade compared with more ambient pollution from sources like car exhaust? That has been less clear.

Recently, though, a study by researchers with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, found that fine particulate matter from wildfire smoke can be several times more harmful to respiratory health than from other sources.

The study’s authors analyzed 14 years of Southern California hospital admissions data, lining it up with smoke plume and wind patterns.

When an increase in pollution was attributed to wildfire, hospital admissions related to respiratory health increased between 1.3% to 10%, compared with 1% when the same pollution increase was attributed to other sources.

Whereas lab research had already suggested that wildfire smoke could be more dangerous, Rosana Aguilera, one of the new study’s co-authors, told me recently that their work takes “more of an epidemiological point of view.”

Still, she said, the conclusion was the same: “Wildfire smoke is more toxic than the same size of fine particles that might be found in ambient pollution.”

So what does this mean?

Aguilera said that air quality regulations and measurements should better account for the different sources of pollution.

“And of course ambient pollution is still a problem,” she said.

But increases in wildfire smoke from fires driven by climate change could cancel out some of the hard-won decreases in pollution from vehicles and other types.

Tom Corringham, another co-author of the study, said all of that should inform policy.

For example, farmworkers, who have been particularly vulnerable throughout the pandemic, should be given N95 masks, even when there isn’t a virus spreading.

Both said they hoped to continue studying the health effects of wildfires over time.

Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company

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