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Scientists Study The Long Term Health Effects Of Wildfire Smoke : Shots

Smoke blankets Mill City, Oregon, which was evacuated for days following the nearby Beachie Creek Fire.

Nathan Rott/NPR


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Nathan Rott/NPR

Smoke blankets Mill City, Oregon, which was evacuated for days following the nearby Beachie Creek Fire.

Nathan Rott/NPR

Ariel Kinzinger had a headache. Clark Brinkman coughed and wheezed. LaNesha Collins, feeling physically fine, was frustrated by another day mostly trapped inside looking out at a sepia sun, in Portland, Ore.

“I’ve never been in the thick of smoke like this,” said Collins, an Oregonian like the others. “It’s insane.”

In recent weeks, tens of millions of Americans have lived and breathed through a thick haze of wildfire smoke. In places, it lasted for weeks. The immediate health effects of that are well known to the medical community and anyone who’s been exposed: Eyes sting, throats tighten, snot can turn black.

Respiratory problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be exacerbated, causing spikes in hospital visits. And recent research on the link between wildfire smoke and the flu, even suggests it could increase a person’s risk of contracting COVID-19.

Much less is known though about what happens after the smoke clears.

“Every person who asks me is like, ‘What does this mean for my health a long time from now?,'” says Colleen Reid, a geographer at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies the health impacts of wildfire smoke. “And unfortunately we don’t really know.”

The lack of data and information on the long-term health impacts of wildfire smoke is a hole scientists and epidemiologists are quickly trying to fill. Research teams are looking at long-term lung function after smoke exposure, and potential impacts on pregnant women and infants. These efforts have been slowed by the pandemic, but have taken on new urgency with recent events.

Record-breaking wildfires, like those the West Coast has experienced this year, have become a near-annual occurrence. Human-caused climate change is increasing the length and intensity of fire season globally. More people are moving to fire-prone areas. And there’s a growing understanding among land managers and the public that more “good fire” is going to be needed across broad swaths of the U.S. to chip away at a century’s worth of accumulated vegetation in some Western forests. All of this means more people are going to be exposed to smoke more frequently in the future.

“The paradigm’s changing where a [smoke event] is not just this one-time disaster for many communities in the West,” says Sheryl Magzamen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University. “They’re actually chronic disasters that occur every two to three years.”

Smoke travels far

Days of thick smoke are not a new occurrence in many Western communities. But the breadth and duration of the smoke generated by this year’s fires is without modern precedent.

An NPR analysis of air quality data on the West Coast found that 1 in 7 Americans have experienced at least a day of unhealthy air conditions during this

The August Complex wildfire has topped 1M acres in California. That’s ‘proof’ of climate change, Gov. Gavin Newsom says.

California reached another alarming milestone Monday in its historic wildfire season: A single fire has burned 1 million acres. 

California wildfire evacuee: ‘we lost everything’

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The August Complex, which has spread into seven counties since sparking Aug. 17, is larger than the combined total of all of the state’s wildfires from 1932 to 1999, Gov. Gavin Newsom said. It has destroyed or damaged nearly 250 structures, according to Cal Fire.



an orange sunset in the background: The August Complex Fire burns near Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest of California on Sept. 16, 2020.


© Noah Berger, AP
The August Complex Fire burns near Lake Pillsbury in the Mendocino National Forest of California on Sept. 16, 2020.

This comes a day after fire officials said this year’s wildfires have burned more than 4 million acres — more than double the previous record.

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“If that’s not proof point, testament, to climate change, then I don’t know what is,” Newsom said.

The Northern California blaze, which began as a series of fires ignited by lightning in the Mendocino National Forest, became the state’s largest wildfire last month, with officials warning that it will likely merge with the Zogg Fire near Redding.

‘Scared to death’: In California wine country, wildfire-fatigued residents weigh the unthinkable: Moving out

Video: California couple recalls ‘wall of fire,’ exploding trees as they escaped Glass Fire (KTXL-TV Sacramento)

California couple recalls ‘wall of fire,’ exploding trees as they escaped Glass Fire

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“It’s likely the Zogg Fire may make its way into the August Complex, (which) remains the largest wildfire in terms of total acreage burned in California’s history,” Newsom said last week.

As of Monday afternoon, the August Complex was 54% contained.

Fire crews have made progress against the Zogg Fire, which started Sep. 27. Containment was at 80% Monday night, the second straight day the blaze has not grown in acreage. 

The Zogg Fire has killed four people, destroyed 204 buildings,and burned 56,305 acres. The cause is still unknown, according to Cal Fire.

In the wine country, fire officials on Monday lifted some evacuation orders in Sonoma County, where the Glass Fire has charred 66,840 acres. It was 41% contained.

More than 1,230 buildings have been destroyed, including wineries and beloved landmarks such as Napa’s famed Restaurant at Meadowood, by the Glass Fire, which sparked on the same day as the Zogg Fire.

Contributing: Susan Miller and Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY; David Benda and Matt Brannon, Redding (Calif.) Record Searchlight; The Associated Press