Melissa: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Speaker 1: Right now, out of control wildfires are raging across California, firefighters desperate to contain the flame.
Speaker 2: Wildfires devastating the West Coast and other parts of the country, from California to New Mexico and Alaska and Minnesota.
Speaker 3: Hellish fires ravaging the Sequoia National Forest.
Melissa: Eight of the 10 largest fires in California's history have sparked since 2017 and 2020 was the most active wildfire season in those years with more than 4 million acres of land burned. Wildfires are one of the greatest climate change challenges that we're facing right now and they're not just a California problem. Smoke from these wildfires is reaching all corners of the US causing hazy skies and poor air quality.
Speaker 4: Oh, if you looked outside, you'd notice it was another hazy day in the tri-state. Because of the smoke from the West Coast wildfires, the air quality got pretty bad this morning. In fact, it was the worst it's been in two decades now.
Speaker 5: Because of those fires, Colorado's air quality is as bad as it's been in years.
Melissa: California is especially impacted,
Speaker 6: Across the Bay Area, air quality is a major concern today. Even if you can't smell the smoke, you can see it.
Speaker 7: I can tell you that smoke from the Northern California brush fires has made its way into the LA Basin blanketing it.
Melissa: A recent analysis of federal satellite imagery by NPR's California Newsroom and Stanford University's Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab found that dangerous smoke from West Coast wildfires is being carried thousands of miles across the country. The number of days that some communities are exposed to this toxic smoke is increasing. That's a reality that could impact the health of all of us. The investigation also found that decades of poor forest management from both California State officials and the federal government, along with a lack of prescribed burns has left California's forest overgrown with brush and small trees and ripped for sparked fire.
We spoke with Alison Saldanha investigative data reporter for NPR's California Newsroom.
Alison Saldanha: We started out with this idea that we wanted to understand how residents across the US are affected by the smoke from the wildfires that are burning in the West. To do that, we partnered with Stanford University's Environmental Change and Human Outcomes lab. Using data from NOAA which is federal satellite imagery, we mapped what the images show of smoke across the US onto zip codes, and then used that to analyze how things have gotten worse over the decade. That data is available for over 10 years now.
We decided to bunch the years into a before times when wildfires were less destructive. That's probably around from 2009 to 2013, and that was our before times. Then we looked at the current period when we can see that extreme wildfire events are repeated and more destructive. That's how we compared how every zip code across America is now breathing in smoke compared to a few years ago.
Melissa: How far is the smoke reaching?
Alison Saldanha: This data shows that smoke exposure is not something that's just limited to Northern California or the Central Valley. It's actually spread across the US and clear across the country in Boston, we can see a 50% rise in smoke exposure. The residents here are now breathing in close to a month of smoke compared to before.
Melissa: People in Boston are now breathing more smoke because of wildfires in California?
Alison Saldanha: Yes. That's what the research is starting to show. It's not just California's wildfires, it's even Oregon and definitely, there's some impacts from Canada, but we can see that as the wildfires particularly get stronger and wilder in California, it's impacting the whole country.
Melissa: Now, what are the health risks associated with this smoke? Is it just an annoyance?
Alison Saldanha: No, it's actually pretty disturbing. Scientists and researchers, in general, are still catching up because this is a fairly new phenomenon. There's not something we can definitively say that exposure to wildfire smoke is definitely causing this, that and whatever else. We do know that the smoke is impacting your lungs. It's impacting your heart. It causes cognitive declines. There's studies that show that it could be linked to Alzheimer's. The new research seems to show that there are preterm births that are linked to exposure to wildfire smoke.
We decided to dive further into the hospitalizations in California, because this is the state that's driving the change in exposure to smoke. We analyzed how hospitalizations for heart and lung diseases have grown over the years. What we found from the publicly available datasets is that in 2018, there were 30,000 more hospitalizations for heart and lung diseases compared to 2016, which was a less destructive fire year.
Melissa: Can you tell us a little bit about PM2.5, what is it?
Alison Saldanha: PM2.5 is the fine particulate matter. It's a really dangerous pollutant that moves through the air. It's so tiny. It's 10 times smaller than a strand of human hair. Once it's ingested, because it's so tiny, it can go deep into your lungs. If you are pregnant, it could affect your fetus. It could affect your brain. It definitely is known to affect your heart and lungs and there's still so much research to be done on how these really tiny particles can ruin a quality of life and even cause premature death.
Melissa: As I'm listening to you, I'm reflecting on all of the misinformation there is circulating around the COVID-19 vaccines and the real fear so many people fear about taking those vaccines because they're worried about things like effect on a pregnancy or effect on your lungs or any of these things. Yet there's very little, actually there's no scientific evidence to suggest that those things are real, but you're telling me that you've got a decade of data showing that these wildfires are having a real effect across the country. Why isn't this the front page news everywhere?
Alison Saldanha: I guess it's because of the fact that you can't see it and it's a more insidious sort of problem. You cannot see the smoke, especially in the East. In the Midwest, as the smoke from the wildfires travel greater distances, they move higher in the sky. That doesn't mean that it's not present in the air. It just means that you can't see it. When it affects you, you're not quite sure what is affecting it. I guess it's more palpable in the West, but as people move around and especially as it starts to get further into the air, and we're looking at five-year averages, that is what our data has been looking at. Everything I've been saying right now, it's like the residents in LA are exposed to a month on average of wildfire smoke. You don't realize that you're breathing in this because it's invisible.
Melissa: Obviously, this is a challenging problem to address. It crosses multiple states. You're talking about things again around five-year averages and most people get elected for two to four years. It makes it really tough to think about how to engage public policy to address this, but what are some of the legislative or public policy ways that we can think about impacting this issue?
Alison Saldanha: One of the main things that we found from this investigation is that forest management needs to become front and center. There needs to be more investment to ensure that there are prescribed burns, that take place regularly, that help to control these wildfires. It was exposing people to a little bit of smoke from the control bonds. As the experts we spoke to said, it's better to have a little bit of smoke exposure in a controlled setting than to let these wildfire blazes just run through the west and then impact the entire country.
One of the main takeaways has been that in Florida, which has seen-- compared to the rest of the US Florida, is witnessing a decline in its smoke exposure for areas that were typically regarding high smoke exposure from wildfires. That's because they've been doing prescribed burns pretty diligently. The only parts of Florida that had actually seen a rise in smoke exposure were counties that are recording burning of sugar crops before the harvest.
Melissa: I'm remembering as you're talking about "burning the sugar crops," we did a conversation about that, which was something that I hadn't known about until we did it. It's like immediately in my mind, I'm sorry, I was thinking about the conversation that we'd had about burning the sugar cane.
Alison Saldanha: No, it was quite surprising because initially, we were like, "Why is Florida showing these great declines in this dataset? Everywhere else it's increasing and we can see that the air is getting worse and Florida is getting better." It's not that Florida is much better. It's still exposed to quite a few days of smoke, but it's definitely a decline from less than a decade ago. When we narrowed it down and looked at the places that are still recording an increase in the state, you can see that those are the ones where there are a lot of sugar crops and those are also the places that are recording sugar crop burning.
Melissa: Of course, you've seen that, that also makes me want to ask because with the burning of the sugarcane crop, one of the critical issues is that it has a disparate effect on racial communities and communities with fewer economic means. Is that similar here? Given how wide this problem is, does it still have a disparate effect on more vulnerable communities?
Alison Saldanha: I definitely think so because the wildfire smoke is affecting everybody so there's no real escaping the situation. Everybody is exposed to the wildfire smoke, but the people who are more likely to bear the costs of that exposure are people from vulnerable communities, people from poorer communities who incidentally happen to be Black, brown or Indigenous because they are the ones who are already possibly exposed to other pollutants. Therefore, that impairs their bodies and their ability to fight the exposure from wildfire smoke.
As this gets worse, it's going to impair their immunity and we already have research that shows that in California and a few other parts of the West, there was this Harvard study that recently came out that said that it actually caused more cases of COVID-19 than before because people were exposed to wildfire smoke.
Melissa: Alison Saldanha is an investigative data reporter for NPR's California Newsroom. Alison, thank you for joining us, and thank you for this data and research.
Alison Saldanha: Thank you, Melissa. It was great to be here.
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