For the past few decades, California and other states along the West Coast have experienced annual fires. Traditionally, these are natural, seasonal events caused by warmer seasons and an increase in dry vegetation, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
However, this year has seen a particularly destructive fire season. In just the past few months, 3,627,010 acres of land have burned, 6,223 homes have been lost, and millions of lives have been changed forever. So, while it is true that seasonal fires are beneficial to native ecosystems, the large-scale fires that have been ripping apart coastal cities for the past few years are nothing short of a climate crisis.
California began keeping a record of its seasonal fires in 1932, and all of the largest and least controlled disasters have happened after the year 2000. As more years pass and states continue to ignore the climate crisis, these catastrophes are only going to become an increasingly dangerous, annual event.
As the number of evacuations increases to roughly 80,000 in Washington, Oregon, and California, people are beginning to understand the long-term effects of smoke. Not only does it have the potential to impact someone’s health, but it also has adverse effects on the planet.
Health experts warn that exposure to high concentrations of wildfire smoke will lead to an increase in heart attacks, asthma, and other respiratory issues. While it is still unclear, many believe that these vulnerabilities can also make someone more susceptible to COVID-19. As the director of research for Standford’s Sean N Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma, Dr. Mary Pruniki studied the inflammatory effects of wildfire smoke.
“Fine particles [in the smoke] go to the bottom of your lungs, then can cross over to the bloodstream and go anywhere in your body. I don’t know that we have it figured out on a cellular level, but we see dysregulation and we know that pollution is causing inflammatory changes throughout your body,” Pruniki said in an article for The Guardian.
This pollution is also affecting native ecosystems whose habitats are being destroyed by fires and intoxicated by smoke. Chemicals within ashes from houses and other buildings make smoke particles dangerous for animals and humans to breathe. Furthermore, ash that lands in reservoirs, lakes, or other bodies of water can pollute the area and make it too acidic to inhabit animals.
But, it is hopeful to think that these fires will spark change within the way people view the planet. It is up to the students, politicians, consumers, and everyone who makes up the communities around us to understand the damage humans cause on the environment. And, it is up to everyone to hold themselves and others accountable to prevent these disasters from becoming the new norm.
“California, folks, is America fast forward,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom. “What we’re experiencing right here is coming to communities all across the United States of America unless we get our act together on climate change.”
Bay Area residents awoke to a thick layer of wildfire smoke blanketing their cities on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 9.
The ominous orange haze resembled an apocalyptic landscape, or perhaps the surface of Mars. While the sky was merely a dusty yellow at 7 a.m., it soon turned into a dull orange by 8 a.m., and darkness started creeping in. The eerie skies are now being ruled as a scientific phenomenon.
The smoke comes from the numerous wildfires that continue to burn up and down the coast of California. Most of the smoke that emerged that day was coming from the August Complex Fire in the Mendocino National Forest and the Bear Fire, which started in the mountain terrain of the Plumas National Forest.
So what caused the orange sky?
Only seven colors of the electromagnetic spectrum are visible to the human eye.
Blue light, which has a short wavelength, is scattered by small particles like nitrogen and oxygen. When sun rays hit these particles, it gives off the blue color of the sky that we see in the daytime. This is known as Rayleigh scattering, which is the dominant type of light in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The smoke particles that clogged the air in California early September are much bigger than the molecules in the atmosphere and similar in size to visible light.
These particles absorbed the blue and green light of the atmosphere, exposing a red hue to the sky. This process is known as Mie scattering.
The smoke particles also absorbed the sunlight, which created a darkening effect on the sky.
Despite the smoke in the air, the Air Quality Index (AQI) remained “moderate” until later in the day.
Suspended smoke stayed higher in the atmosphere above breathing levels. However, shifting winds and the sun later burned away the marine layer keeping the trapped smoke at bay.
The AQI readings also remained low due to the size of the falling ash particles. Designed to detect smaller particles, the sensors did not pick up the ash in the sky. Ash can irritate the lungs and cause other symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
When Dani Courtney, a junior at Carlmont, awoke that morning, she knew she was witnessing something strange.
“I figured this might be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, so I grabbed a nice camera and took pictures of anything I could,” Courtney said.
The results are striking images of the dark orange skies.
Numerous unfortunate events have occured in 2020 thus far, one of them being the burning down of over 3.6 million acres in the U.S. People from all over the West Coast have had to evacuate their homes, including many from the Belmont community. San Carlos released a safety preparedness announcement on Sept. 2, causing many to rethink their safety. The announcement recommended having a fire evacuation plan, but since the Wine Country fires in 2017, the Bay Area community had not had to prepare for an emergency.
The month of September brought a multitude of fires to California, such as The August Complex, LNU Lightning Complex, and the El Dorado Fire. The 40-50 mph wind gusts spread the fires to the Bay Area, masking the sky in a dark orange hue. A vegetation fire in Belmont called for the evacuation of any residents near San Juan Canyon, East Laurel Creek Road, and Cipriana Boulevard.
Sophomore Kendall Grinker was among the evacuated.
“It is so important that you stay calm even though it is a scary situation. Grab everything that is important to you, like irreplaceable things,” Grinker said.
Grinker mentioned that although her family didn’t have a plan beforehand, they will remember what they did this time to help them if they ever need to evacuate again.
California wasn’t the only state watching their hopes for 2020 burn with the fires as over 500,000 people in Oregon had to evacuate. One of those 500,000 is an incoming freshman at Oregon State University, Brody Akin. The Akin family evacuated before any warning due to Brody’s allergy to smoke. With all of this happening so suddenly, it is hard to be completely ready, but Brody believes that having a backup plan is essential.
“You must have an evacuation plan. You have to keep moving because stopping is not an option,” Akin said.
Akin said that he took everything that was important to him while being responsible and bringing only necessary items. Brody believes that the number one piece of advice you should adhere to is having an evacuation plan, no matter how unnecessary it may seem.
“You feel so hopeless. It made me feel like the world was ending,” Akin said.
Dangers of smoke
With the wildfires raging in California, an increased amount of smoke and other pollutants have infiltrated the air. This has caused the air to become more toxic, resulting in a host of respiratory problems for many.
Several of the 40 million California residents have been affected in some way by the smoke, which has prevented people from being able to participate in their usual outdoor or strenuous activities. This is because the smoke and other toxic particles in the air can irritate people’s respiratory systems, block oxygen inhalation, and weaken immune systems. These effects can make someone more susceptible to other illnesses, such as COVID-19.
The effects are even worse for those with pre-existing respiratory conditions. According to the American Lung Association, the wildfires’ smoke can cause severe harm to those in at-risk categories. The pollutants in the air can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes, all of which can cause severe implications, and in some cases, death.
Because of the severity of these issues, it is beneficial to be aware of some of the signs of smoke inhalation, regardless of whether you have existing conditions or not. Symptoms for both groups include coughing and chest pain, trouble breathing, stinging eyes, irritated throat, fatigue, and headaches. Being aware of these symptoms, as well as taking other precautions, can help eliminate the health risks people can encounter.
One simple way to avoid overexertion in dangerous smoke levels is to check the Air Quality Index (AQI) before going outside. The AQI gives a rough estimate of the air quality in a given location, with an AQI of 50 and under considered healthy.
However, the AQI given by the standard weather app on your phone can often be inaccurate. Whether the AQI is purposefully misleading or not, people who rely on this app may falsely perceive the air quality as better than it really is.
Some reliable sources for the AQI include PiCO Home, which is an air quality monitor that can be used at home. Furthermore, there are other websites you can use to compare air qualities, such as PurpleAir. Ultimately, it’s best to use personal judgment on whether it seems safe to go outside.
If you decide to go outside, there are a few ways you can lessen the effects of the smoky air. For instance, avoid smoking any substances that could irritate the lungs, such as cigarettes and vape pens. Furthermore, if you can, wear an N-95 mask when outside, as these can help filter out harmful particles in the air before they enter your lungs.
Even if indoors, smoke particles can permeate the air. To stay safe while at home, consider purchasing an air purifier to filter out toxins and other pollutants in the air. Also, activities like vacuuming, which can stir up particles in a room, should be avoided, and the use of candles and similar products should be limited.
Smoke can be a deadly consequence of wildfires and can cause numerous health complications. By being proactive and taking precautionary measures, people can minimize their risk of being affected.
This story was originally published on Scot Scoop News on October 5, 2020.