BILLINGS, Mont. – Smoke from forest fires in the western United States and Canada covers much of the continent, including thousands of miles on the east coast. And experts say the phenomenon is becoming more common as man-made global warming fuels larger and more intense fires.
Smoke pollution has reached unhealthy levels this week in communities from Washington State to Washington DC
Get used to it, say the researchers.
“These fires are going to burn all summer long,” said Dan Jaffe, a wildfire smoke expert at the University of Washington. “In terms of poor air quality, all over the country is going to be worse than average this year.”
A growing body of scientific research indicates potential long-term health damage from inhaling microscopic smoke particles. Authorities have worked to better protect people from adverse effects, but face challenges in communicating the risks to vulnerable communities and people who live far away from burning forests.
WHY SO MUCH SMOKE AND HOW DANGEROUS IS IT?
Decades of aggressive firefighting have allowed dead trees and other fuels to accumulate in the forests. Today, climate change is drying up the landscape, making it easier to start and spread fires even as more people move to areas prone to fires.
The number of poor air quality days recorded in 2021 by pollution monitors nationwide is more than double the number so far in each of the past two years, according to figures provided to The Associated Pressed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Wildfires are likely to be responsible for much of the increase, officials said.
The amount of smoke that wildfires release is a direct result of the amount of land burned – over 4,100 square miles (10,600 square kilometers) in the United States and 4,800 square miles (12,500 square kilometers) in Canada as far as Canada. now in 2021. That’s behind the 10-year average. for this time of year for both countries, but forecasters warn conditions could worsen as a severe drought affecting 85% of the West intensifies.
Smoke from wildfires contains hundreds of chemicals, and many can be harmful in large doses. Health officials use the concentration of smoke particles in the air to assess the severity of the danger to the public.
In the years of bad fires over the past decade, hells across the West have emitted more than a million tonnes of particulate matter per year, according to research by the US Forest Service.
Scientists link smoke exposure to long-term health problems, including decreased lung function, a weakened immune system, and higher rates of the flu. In the short term, vulnerable people can be hospitalized and sometimes die from excess smoke, according to doctors and public health officials.
When communities burn, smoke can be particularly dangerous. The 2018 fire in Paradise, California, which killed 85 people and burned down 14,000 homes also generated a thick plume covering parts of northern California for weeks. Smoke from burning homes and buildings contains more toxic plastics and other manufactured materials as well as chemicals stored in garages.
WHERE ARE THE FIRES?
Nearly 80 large forest fires are now burning in the United States, including 19 in Montana. The largest – the Bootleg fire in eastern Oregon – grew to 618 square miles (1,600 square kilometers). It’s half the size of Rhode Island, but fewer than 200 homes and other structures have been confirmed to be lost because the fire is burning in a sparsely populated area.
More than 200 fires are burning in Manitoba and Ontario, Canadian officials say.
The weather conditions and the intensity of the fire determine who is affected by the smoke. Huge fires generate so much heat that they can produce their own clouds which channel smoke into the atmosphere.
“It crosses all over the country and slowly spreads, forming a sort of layer of haze in the sky,” said meteorologist Miles Bliss of the National Weather Service in Medford, Oregon.
The combined plume of Canada and the United States widely traversed parts of the Midwest this week before settling at ground level in an area stretching from Ohio to northeastern New England and the southern Carolinas, based on air pollution data.
Health effects may occur thousands of miles from the flames. The smoke loses its telltale smell but remains a potential danger even when it drifts this far, said Jeff Pierce, atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University.
“It’s definitely unhealthy,” Pierce said of the air along the East Coast in recent days. “If you have asthma or any sort of respiratory illness you will want to think about changing your plans if you are going to be outside.”
People who live near fires are more likely to be prepared and take precautions, while those who live farther away remain unintentionally exposed, according to a recent study by epidemiologist Sheryl Magzamen and Pierce of Colorado State University.
HOW CAN I PROTECT ME?
Listen to smoke warnings and, if advised, avoid outdoor activities to reduce exposure. Keep doors and windows closed and use an air filter to clean the indoor air. Face masks can protect against smoke inhalation. As with COVID-19, N95 masks are the most effective because they are designed to block the smallest particles.
A line, interactive smoke map launched by the EPA and the US Forest Service last year on a pilot basis has attracted millions of viewers. To reach people faster, officials are considering using mobile phone push notifications that would alert users when heavy smoke could flood their communities, according to agency spokesperson Enesta Jones.
Associated Press reporter Julie Walker contributed from New York.
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP