As of 2022, CAL FIRE has reported a total of 4,972 fires and a total of 147,034 acres burned in California. The largest wildfire was the August Complex caused by lightning in August 2020 with 1,032,648 acres burned, 935 structures destroyed, and 1 death, and the most destructive wildfire is CAMP caused by a powerline in 2018 in Butte county with 153,336 acres burned, 18,804 structures destroyed, and 85 deaths.
“Temperatures are rising, we are having these prolonged periods of drought, we are not getting much rain until later in the year, and not only are the fires getting bigger and more destructive, wildfires are lasting longer than ever. We are getting massive wildfires in October and November which have not been seen in previous years,” said Amy MacPherson, Public Information Officer.
The California Air Resource Board (CARB) states that climate change is a huge reason why there are more intense fires and why more of these are destructive fires. With climate change and the frequent fires California has in the summer, residents need to be prepared for what chemicals the smoke from wildfires carries to protect their loved ones.
“Particulate matter is the main pollutant that is generated by wildfires. They are small particles that you find in ash, not the stuff that you can see with the naked eye. If you can see it with the naked eye, then it is on the large run of the scale, but there is really fine particulate matter almost like dust, and it is small enough to enter your lungs and the smallest pieces can actually travel from your lungs into your bloodstream,” said MacPherson.
Particulate Matter (PM) is the biggest health concern for wildfire smoke. These particles are as small as 2.5 micrometers and they can get deep in the lungs causing heart and lung effects. It is really dangerous for those who have existing heart and lung disease such as asthma. Some related health problems related to smoke include:
- Itchy and watery eyes
- Eye and respiratory tract irritation
- Heart and lung disease
Lead is another chemical that has been found in fires that has been linked to high blood pressure, reproductive effects, and cancer. For children, even low levels of lead can be very damaging such as causing behavior changes and learning deficits.
A N95 mask is good to wear during wildfires. It is important to check if the N95 mask is NIOSH certified because this brand has been tested and it has been proven to filter out 95% of particulate matter. Making sure that the mask is sealed and the mask is worn appropriately will improve protection.
In case of a wildfire, staying indoors is the best way to stay safe from breathing smoke. Having the air system in recirculation mode will help prevent getting air from the outdoors, and having the system turned on to be filtered instead of auto will also help. It is important to have a fresh filter at the beginning of wildfire season.When evacuating from a fire, cars have a recirculate mode for air conditioning to run the current air in the car, and avoid air from the outdoors.
CARBs recommends getting a portable air cleaner and making sure it is the appropriate size for the room. Closing the windows and gathering the family in the same room with a portable air cleaner is the best way to avoid wildfire smoke. Also, avoiding vacuuming, frying food, or using gas-powered appliances.
“Particulate matter can travel hundreds of miles if not thousands of miles. We had a couple of fires the last couple of years that traveled all the way to the east coast. Smoke carries all these different pollutants such as particulate matter or a toxin. Sometimes it goes to a different layer of the atmosphere and other times it is at ground level,” said MacPherson.
Checking the air quality multiple times a day during the wildfire season would be the same as checking the weather frequently. Checking the Air Quality Index can help people know when it would be best to stay indoors and avoid any smoke from near fires. Fire.airnow.gov shows where all the fires are and where the smoke is currently at.
“It is really important for folks to not wait until there is smoke to protect themselves. By the time that it is really smoky, you’re not going to be outside running to get everything you need, and you’re not wanting to scramble to have a plan of what to do with the kids. People prepare for fires, but it is also important to prepare for the smoke,” said MacPherson.
CARB has an app called California Smoke Spotter which is currently available for download on mobile devices. Currently, the app shows air quality information, how to protect yourself from smoke, a smoke forecast with current events, and fire information. In the next few weeks, there will be an upgrade that will include wildfire information, wildfire alert, and a separate smoke forecast that will indicate what might happen in the next 24 hours.