Though Spared From Recent Wildfires, San Diego's Smokey Days Still Tripled
Speaker 1: (00:00)
California grapples with wildfires every year and a new analysis of satellite imagery by NPRs California newsroom and Stanford university's environmental change and human outcomes. Lab finds wildfire smoke is causing problems far away from the fire zones. KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson says smoke is a growing problem. Even in San Diego county,
Speaker 2: (00:26)
Wildfires are a part of life in Southern California. Flames race out of control. Evacuations are ordered fire crews respond and after hours days, and in some cases, weeks, the blaze is finally snuffed out and the damages assessed the new research finds the flames are not the only problem wildfire smoke has greatly extended the damaging reach of these out of control blazes.
Speaker 3: (00:52)
I refer to them as the long arm of the fire.
Speaker 2: (00:54)
Neil Driscoll is a Scripps institution of oceanography researcher who helps firefighters track wildfire movement in Southern California.
Speaker 3: (01:03)
Plumes can go long distances. We noticed that this year we had areas in new England being shut down because of air quality from fires that were in California
Speaker 2: (01:13)
In San Diego. The amount of smoke in the air has more than tripled over the last decade. And PR is California newsroom teamed with researchers at Stanford university to analyze satellite images of wildfire smoke. Stanford's Marshall Burke worked on the project.
Speaker 4: (01:30)
You've seen a clear upward trend in San Diego county, uh, and across other parts of Southern California, an upward trend in the number of days, uh, with smoke plumes, uh, in the air, uh, and a rapid increase in the number of days with these very heavy, these dense smoke plumes overhead,
Speaker 2: (01:47)
The investigation found Oceanside residents are now living with more than a month of smoke a year. It's the same for other parts of north county like Escondido, Fallbrook and camp Pendleton in Imperial county. Some areas outside El Centro are now experiencing two months of smoke a year, even. So Burke says the local region didn't get the worst of it.
Speaker 4: (02:09)
California did get hit with wildfire exposure, but really parts of Northern California, the bay area got hit really hard just because of this confluence of wind direction and where exactly the act of wealth,
Speaker 2: (02:20)
But the smoke is still impacting health and San Diego and Imperial counties. The analysis found a 17% increase in hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiac conditions in the heavy fire year of 2018. Compared to just two years before prescriptions for asthma medication, abuterol spiked by nearly 21% between 2013 and 2018. It can be very
Speaker 5: (02:46)
Bad for people with preexisting
Speaker 2: (02:47)
Heart or lung disease. Greg Hersch is an Escondida pulmonologist. He says wildfire smoke is notoriously bad for people. Healthy folks can experience coughing lung irritation and shortness of breath in more serious cases. It can cause asthma and heart disease. Hersh is particularly concerned about tiny particles, smaller than 2.5 microns that can get passed. The upper airways may get
Speaker 5: (03:12)
And to the smaller airways or the alveoli, the air SACS, where the gas exchange occurs, they can be difficult to get rid of
Speaker 2: (03:21)
The wildfire. Smoke is particularly dangerous and communities of color that are already coping with poor air quality Barrio, Logan, Sandy Sedro, and Escondido face additional challenges. Their air is polluted because of trafficker industry, San Diego county supervisor, Nora Vargas chairs, the regional air board. She says politicians and regulators need to take extra steps to help communities of color cope. For instance, by providing alerts about poor air quality,
Speaker 6: (03:50)
Our community has the tools that they need. So there are very mindful and they know when pollution isn't in, in at those lab. Also, they're able to also protect them.
Speaker 2: (04:00)
Vargas says, making sure people are aware of the risks of dirty air and giving them access to health care are important for working class communities. She knows the air board can't regulate wildfire smoke, but regulators can work to reduce other pollution sources that amplify the smokes health impacts.
Speaker 6: (04:18)
We are really thinking about what are the potential risks of the different industries that are in the region.
Speaker 2: (04:25)
Meanwhile, fires continue to burn in California. There are more than a dozen active battles against wildfires flames. For more than 7,700 blazes have already charged more than 2.4 million acres in California. Just this year. Eric Anderson KPBS news.
Speaker 1: (04:44)
Joining me is Alison Saldana, a data journalist who led this investigation for NPR, California newsroom. Alison, welcome to the show.
Speaker 7: (04:55)
Hi, it's great to be here
Speaker 1: (04:57)
In the last few months, San Diego has experienced drifting smoke from fires in Northern California, even from fires in the Pacific Northwest. Is it still dangerous when it arrives so far from the source?
Speaker 7: (05:12)
What we've seen, um, to our work because wildfires across the west have been burning hotter and faster. Um, so what we wanted to understand was how is that affecting not just the places where it burns, but the areas around it. And it definitely does show that San Diego is feeling those effects and not to San Diego. Actually, it's pretty much the, the whole us in that sense,
Speaker 1: (05:38)
What determines how far smoke can move through the air?
Speaker 7: (05:42)
A lot of gaps in the research, we still don't know how to predict the way smoke moves. And, uh, but what we do understand is that the weather does affect, um, how the smoke moves across different parts of the country. And in San Diego, some research has shown how the Santa Ana winds have been Gehring the smoke from wildfire areas to the, um, to the Southern part of California,
Speaker 1: (06:10)
Has the intensity of wildfire smoke threatened to turn back the clock on California's air pollution statistics.
Speaker 7: (06:18)
Indeed. That's exactly what the research shows is that, and even when we did an analysis of [inaudible] data on a particulate matter, which is what wildfire smoke is made up of. So I analyzed to see how exposure to find particulate matter has grown over the last two decades or declined. And what it shows is that there was a steep decline between 2000 and 2010, and now it's starting to increase again and rapidly. So since 2016 onwards,
Speaker 1: (06:53)
Since climate scientists say fires will continue burning hotter and more often, what kinds of precautions should we take for instance, should we all get air filters?
Speaker 7: (07:05)
That is one of the recommendations, um, is that we would have to stay in doors. Uh, we'd have to get air filters. There has to be more done at the state level in terms of investing, uh, so that people who do not have the means to buy these can still get them because, uh, they are more likely to live in housing that that would expose them to leaky, uh, settings, wherein the smoke could enter their homes, which is different from when you stay in a, in a more recent construction that is more likely to keep the air out. Uh, but it's not just what you can do, um, on your own. It's more about how the state is going to address this in terms of, uh, clearing up the forest, managing, uh, how we take care of, uh, prescribed burns and educating the public on what to do when things get bad.
Speaker 1: (08:04)
I'm going to ask you more about prescribed burns, because one of the big takeaways from your report is that California should do more forest management, including prescribed, burns, have dried underbrush, is that largely in or near national forest areas?
Speaker 7: (08:22)
I believe that. So what we haven't done, we haven't gone too deep into prescribed balloons because there's still a lot of research that needs to be done on how effective it is, but what the data show is that in Florida and in other parts of the country where, uh, prescribed burns have been followed more stringently, or there has been more enthusiasm around it. Uh, those areas have actually started to record a decline in the number of days that residents are exposed to smoke. And so initial research seems to suggest that prescribed burns may be one of the key areas of investment and one of the key areas where policy needs to move forward. And a lot of research scientists believe that as well. A lot of the experts we spoke to advocate it strongly,
Speaker 1: (09:14)
But both that put even more smoke in the air.
Speaker 7: (09:17)
You one of the FA one of my favorite sayings from one of the experts that we spoke to a Dr. John bombs, who is with the California air resources board, is that you have to get, you have to be okay with getting exposed to a little bit of smoke, to prevent a large amount of smoke exposure because of the wildfires.
Speaker 1: (09:38)
Now, a couple of the people you spoke with in your report told you that they had plans to leave California because of the increasing smoke and wildfires, but as you've tracked the way wildfire smoke is traveling, there are not many areas that are really safe. Are there?
Speaker 7: (09:55)
No there is. And that's one of the, the more, uh, depressing parts of the investigation is that pretty much every part of the U S is affected by smoke. And even though places like the Midwest, which are actually of showing some improvement in the number of smoke days, that residents are exposed to, if, uh, some of the modeling that, um, uh, our researchers at Stanford, uh, have done show that the density of the smoke is actually increasing in those areas as well.
Speaker 1: (10:25)
I've been speaking with the Ellison cell Donna, a data journalist who led this investigation for NPRs California newsroom. Alison, thank you so much.
Speaker 7: (10:35)
Thank you for having me.
California wildfires are generating pollution that is harming people's health and the situation is getting worse, not better.
California grapples with wildfires every year, and those fires are damaging more than just the lands they burn.
Wildfire smoke is causing problems far away from the fire zones, including in San Diego and Imperial Counties, according to a new analysis of satellite imagery by NPR’s California Newsroom and Stanford University’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab.
It found in the San Diego region, the amount of smoke in the air has more than tripled in the past decade.
RELATED: Dangerous Air: As California Burns, America Breathes Toxic Smoke
Oceanside residents are now living with more than a month of smoke a year and it’s the same for other parts of North County, including Escondido, Fallbrook and Camp Pendleton, according to the data.
Meanwhile, in Imperial County, some areas outside El Centro are now experiencing two months of smoke a year.
Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science who led the project for Stanford University, analyzed more than a decade’s worth of satellite images of wildfire smoke.
“We’ve seen a clear upward trend in San Diego County,” he said. “And across other parts of Southern California. It's an upward trend with the number of days with smoke plumes in the air and rapid increase in the number of days with these very heavy dense smoke plumes overhead.”
Even so, the San Diego region didn’t get the worst of it, he said.
“Southern California did get hit with wildfire exposure, but really parts of Northern California, the Bay Area, got hit really hard, just because of the confluence of wind direction and where exactly the active wildfires are,” Burke said.
But the smoke is still impacting health in San Diego and Imperial Counties.
The analysis found a 17% increase in hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiac conditions in the heavy fire year 2018, compared to just two years before. Meanwhile, prescriptions for the asthma medication Albuterol spiked by nearly 21% between 2013 and 2018.
“It can be very bad for people with preexisting heart or lung disease,” said Greg Hirsch, a pulmonologist with Palomar Health in Escondido.
Healthy people can experience coughing, lung irritation and shortness of breath from the smoke. In more serious cases, it can cause asthma and heart disease.
Hirsch is particularly concerned about tiny particles smaller than 2.5 microns that can get past the upper airways.
“They get down into the smaller airways or the alveolar, the air sacks where the gas exchange occurs. They can be difficult to get rid of,” Hirsh said.
That means though San Diego is currently far from the wildfires up north, the health impacts can still be severe here.
“I refer to them as the long arm of the fire,” said Neil Driscoll, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher who helps firefighters track wildfire movement in Southern California. “These plumes can go long distances. We noticed that this year. We had areas in New England being shut down because of air quality from fires that were in California.”
The wildfire smoke is particularly dangerous in San Diego’s communities of color, which are already coping with poor air quality. Barrio Logan, San Ysidro and Escondido face additional challenges because their air is already polluted by industry or traffic.
San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas chairs the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District and said politicians and regulators need to take extra steps to help communities of color cope, for instance by providing alerts about poor air quality.
“Give our communities the tools that they need so they are very mindful and they know when pollution is at those levels, so they’re able to also protect themselves,” Vargas said.
She wants to make sure people are aware of the risk of dirty air and she wants to give working class residents access to health care. While elected officials can't keep wildfire smoke out of the air, she said, they can work to reduce pollution that amplifies the wildfire smoke’s health impacts.
“We are really thinking about what are the potential risks of the different industries that are in the region to be able to mitigate that. That’s another huge issue for us,” Vargas said.
Meanwhile, fires continue to burn in California. There are more than a dozen active battles against wildfires. Flames from 7,713 blazes have already charred more than 2.4 million acres in California this year.
This story was reported using an analysis of federal satellite imagery by NPR’s California Newsroom and Stanford University’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab.