As a result of climate change, the Western US has seen a steadily increasing number of wildfires every year – from an average of 140 in the 1980s to 250 in the early 2000s. Apart from actual deaths, burns, and destruction of property, people are also suffering from illnesses due to smoke. NASA satellite images show that smoke from wildfires covers a large geographic expanse, and not only those close to the fires are experiencing coughing, burning eyes, shortness of breath, and asthma attacks as a result. In extreme cases, exposure to chronic smoke has even been linked to heart problems and cancer.
Richard Peltier, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts, explains: “A big wildfire event not only impacts local communities but also people hundreds of miles away. Even if your home isn’t being destroyed and you think ‘this isn’t my problem’ you could suffer serious health effects.”
In fact, new research from the University of Washington has concluded that while the last 30 years has brought improvements in overall air quality in the US, wildfire-prone states in the northwest are getting worse.
“There’s a big red bullseye over that northern Rockies area where they are getting the big wildfires,” said Dan Jaffe, a co-author of the study. “There’s been a big improvement in air quality in the US but wildfires like the ones we are seeing in California are eating away at those gains. In some cases, the smoke is bringing very bad air quality.”
To determine this anomaly, the researchers analyzed data since 1988 from “bad air days”. They found that during these days, sections of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington all experienced declines in air quality throughout the past three decades with especially high levels of organic particulate matter.
“Wildfires are a growing problem and climate change is making them worse,” said Peltier. “When you expose people to higher levels of pollution, they are more likely to become ill. We know more wildfires will mean more deaths. Almost every place in the US, apart from maybe Hawaii, could be impacted by upwind smoke.