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For more than a month every year California’s Central, South Coasts are breathing in wildfire smoke

Thick smoke fills the air during the 2017 Thomas Fire. During these types of events we are inhaling toxic particles that come from the wildfire smoke.
Lance Orozco
During California's wildfire season the air can be filled with wildfire smoke for long periods of time. That smoke is toxic -- filled with very fine particles, that are smaller than the diameter of a human hair, that go through the vocal cords and make it into the deep lungs.

A new Dangerous Air investigation also shows that statewide, California’s Central Coast has seen the biggest increase in hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiac conditions.

This story comes from KCLU’s podcast The One Oh One. You can listen to the full episode here.

The NPR California Newsroom recently analyzed a lot of data from federal satellite imagery taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“These satellites take pictures of the Earth every single day, and you can see how much smoke there is in the air in the pictures,” said Aaron Glantz, the senior investigations editor for NPR’s California newsroom, a coalition of public media stations across the state.

His team took these photos and converted it into data with the help of Stanford University’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab. All with the purpose of answering this question -- how many days of the year are we breathing in wildfire smoke.

So what did that data show for California’s Central, South Coast? Well, if you live in Ventura County you’re breathing in wildfire smoke 35 days a year. In Santa Barbara County it’s 37 days and in San Luis Obispo County it’s 44 days every year.

The time frame Glantz and his team took this data from was from 2016 to 2020.

Most of us can remember the fires during those years -- there was the Thomas Fire, which was the largest wildfire in modern California history at the time.

And then there was the Woolsey Fire, which prompted more than a quarter of a million people to flee their homes and the Hill Fire which started nearby literally minutes before the Woolsey Fire.

Before and after the smoke: what the data tells us

This wildfire smoke investigation compared these recent years that had so many fires, with the period from 2009 to 2013 -- really not that long ago -- to determine the increase in the amount of wildfire smoke we are breathing in.

“We took five years of data from what we called the before times, like back when we used to have normal wildfires, from 2009 to 2013,” said Glantz. "And then we looked at the current period, 2016 to 2020, when we become very accustomed to wildfires raging all over the place, burning down whole cities, like the Dixie Fire this year, burning a million acres. This used to be totally unprecedented, but now it's just what's happening.”

And what they discovered was a 235 percent increase in the number of days of wildfire smoke for residents of Ventura County each year; a 261 percent increase in Santa Barbara County and a 273 percent increase in San Luis Obispo County.

An important factor contributing to this tremendous increase is to how long these major blazes burned for in the region. The Thomas Fire for example burned for six straight months.

“There is the period when the fire first starts where we're worried about our homes where we have to evacuate and then we get the very good news that the fire has been contained,” said Glantz. “But if whoever the responsible agency is, has made a strategic decision to let the fire burn for months and months and months and basically burn itself out. We have to understand that during that period of time, it is still putting smoke in the air that we are breathing.”

California’s Central Coast saw the biggest increase in hospitalizations

The amount of days we breathe in smoke locally isn’t the only thing that has skyrocketed in recent years. So have hospitalizations related to respiratory and cardiac conditions.

“And we found on the Central Coast actually had the biggest increase in hospitalizations in the entire state,” said Glantz. “Almost a 30 percent increase from 2016, which is a relatively modest fire year, to just two years later in 2018.”

The Central Coast is San Luis Obispo County in this study.

“And down in Santa Barbara and Ventura. We were looking at about a 12 percent increase in hospitalizations for heart and lung conditions over that two year period.”

And when whole towns catch on fire, it's not just leaves and trees that burn. Remember the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise? It is known as the most destructive and deadly wildfire in California history.

“Buildings were burning, old lead paint was burning, old lead pipes were burning and all of that went up into the air,” said Glantz. “You know, if a gas station explodes in a fire, all of that petroleum goes up into the air.”

Making breathing in wildfire smoke even more dangerous.

Some areas of California are breathing in three months of smoke a year

Our numbers here on the Central, South Coast are bad but sadly this investigation showed things are much worse in other parts of the state.

“We focused our field reporting for our package in Willows, which is near Chico, so it's about an hour and a half drive north of Sacramento. And in this community, they're now breathing, smoke three months a year.”

What happens when you breathe in three months of smoke a year?

“A lot of these communities are dealing with not being able to let children go out and play at recess... regularly,” said Glantz. “They are making tough decisions for their senior citizens to stay indoors over long periods of time.”

The agricultural industry has also been affected.

“We've interviewed dairy farmers who talked about their cows getting pinkeye and going blind. We've heard stories of crops damaged by smoke and destroying the profits of farmers. And making our wine and cheese taste bad,” said Glantz.

What breathing months of smoke is doing to our health

Wildfire smoke is also undoing decades of air quality improvement.

When air quality is measured experts look at something called PM 2.5. That’s basically the very fine particles, that are smaller than the diameter of a human hair, that go through the vocal cords and make it into the deep lungs.

Between the years 2000 and 2010, the average PM 2.5 concentration levels in the West had declined 35 percent, that’s according to an analysis of EPA data by NPR’s California Newsroom. In comparison this past decade the annual average presence of fine particulate matter in the air rose 26 percent.

“So about 20 years ago, we had progress, progress, progress, progress all through the the aughts” said Glantz. “And then over the last few years, we watched as that progress was just basically eliminated.”

So we know that breathing in wildfire smoke is bad for you but what actually happens to the body when those fine particles make it into the lungs?

The particles are coated with complex hydrocarbons and toxic chemicals that injure the lining of the lower airways and lungs.

John Balmes is a pulmonary physician and a professor at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.

“Some of which are similar to the hydrocarbons in tobacco smoke that are known to be carcinogenic,” said Balmes.

He also serves on the California Air Resources Board and was a consultant on this Dangerous Air investigation.

“So if you already have a respiratory condition like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, then you can get an exacerbation of your asthma or your COPD because you already have inflamed airways that the smoke just makes worse,” said Balmes.

So it’s known to be cancerous. It’s bad news for those with asthma and COPD. And any kind of smoke in the air is awful for the heart.

“There's really no question, we have very solid evidence, that fine particulate from non wildfire sources exacerbates preexisting heart disease, like coronary artery disease that causes heart attacks or strokes,” said Balmes.

He adds there’s even evidence of wildfire smoke exposure leading to low birth weight in babies.

There’s smoke in the air, what can I do?

There’s a few things we can do when there’s bad wildfire smoke in the air.

“Staying indoors with the windows shut and increasing ventilation and filtration,” said Balmes.

He recommends a MERV 13 filter that can be attached to your central ventilation system in your home. There’s also portable HEPA filters which you can put in a closed off room, the bedroom is probably best as we spend so much time in there.

“And then if you have to go outside. During a bad wildfire episode, you shouldn't exercise, especially if you're jogging hard enough to do mouth breathing,” said Balmes. "You're going to bypass the filtering mechanism of the nose, which is very effective".

And mask wearing may not be going away any time soon. Balmes says wear a N-95 or KN-95 mask with the exhalation valves.

This reporting by NPR’s California Newsroom has already spurred action with at least one oversight hearing planned by Congress. State officials are talking about smoke shelters and more protection for outdoors workers.

Aaron Glantz would like this investigation to propel even more action -- The Senior Investigations Editor for NPR’s California Newsroom wants tighter scrutiny of elected officials that are in charge of forest management and tighter scrutiny on the utility companies that have sparked many of the deadly and destructive blazes.

If you're looking for The One Oh One® Design Collective visit:

Michelle oversees digital products at KCLU and is the host and creator of the station's first award-winning podcast The One Oh One. The podcast has won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award, an RTNA 'Best Podcast' award and an LA Press Club award.