As the California wildfire season continues longer and later into the year, some new data revealed that ``smoke waves’’ from wildfires this season made San Joaquin Valley air quality worse.
The smoke waves contain tiny particles (PM2.5), including soot and dust that contributes to asthma attacks, and other lung diseases. The particles can enter the blood stream, harming organs, including the brain and heart, and even cause depression.
That means the smoke creates a major public health hazard, for people who work outside, children, pregnant women, adults over 65 and most everyone, according to Climate Central, a non-profit national science and journalism organization. The group, along with other air quality watch-dog organizations and activists, underscored the wildfire smoke’s growing negative impact on valley air pollution at a recent seminar in Fresno.
The PM2.5 particles can contribute to health problems months or years following the smoke waves, aggravating chronic illnesses among residents.
``Asthma, heart problems, cardio vascular conditions can all get worse under these conditions,’’ said John Upton, editor of Climate Central, an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting facts about the changing climate, rising temperatures and the impact on public health.
The smoke waves are expected to get worse next year and after that. They trap normal pollution in the valley, preventing it from escaping. Federal standards for fine particle air pollution are frequently exceeded in the valley, exacerbated by the smoke waves that come from fires all over the state. The percentage of poor air days in the valley during the peak wild fire season (June to September) is rising due to the hanging smoke.
A number of insights jumped out at the seminar.
For one, smoke waves that hover over the valley, much of California and the West are more harmful than previously believed. Their dust, toxins and soot travel long distances and get trapped in the valley because it is surrounded on three sides by mountains. Climate experts call the valley ``a bowl.’’
Surprisingly, data shows that the San Joaquin Valley’s air quality has been improving since 2,000. But the wildfire smoke waves undermine that improving trend, which has occurred due to air quality regulations in California, seminar participants said.
The term ``smoke wave’’ refers to air pollution from wildfires that linger from today’s large and long-burning wildfires. The smoke waves hover over pollution from diesel trucks and car exhaust pipes, factory fumes, power plants and farmers disking the land, and burning fields, orchards and almond husks.
Emissions from diesel trucks serving a growing number of valley warehouses are also a major culprit, the panelists indicated. They also see rising temperatures, pushed up by the fossil fuel and greenhouse gas pollution that traps heat and dries out forests and grasslands. There’s a particular growing concern for children with asthma and older people with lung diseases and heart problems.
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``The valley’s terrible for holding in air,’’ said Molly Peterson, a science reporter for Climate Central. ``The pollution gets bad and sticks around.’’
Recommendations for public safety included people using N95 breathing masks on high pollution days and trying to keep poor-quality air out of the house. That involves using air filters and indoor air cleaners, and weatherizing homes – making them air tight.
The N95 masks can protect people and outside workers from the fine particles in the air. Air filters for the home should be changed every three months. Panelists urged people to take heed of bad-air-day warnings from public health officials. They also called for a boost in warnings from public officials.
There’s also a call for more so-called ``prescribed burns,’’ or fires that are lit and managed by firefighters and other experts on forest floors. The aim is to clear flammable fuel such as pine needles, branches and brush.
Prescribed burns would also create smoke pollution, but to a lesser extent. They could be a trade-off from large wild fires and extensive toxic smoke waves.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and state and federal agencies are undertaking and encouraging more prescribed burns.
Such drastic ideas are needed, according to seminar participants. The San Joaquin Valley is the most polluted basin in the nation, said Genevieve Gale of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition. The Bakersfield area and Southern San Joaquin Valley is the most polluted, followed by the Fresno/Madera area.
California leaders are working to reduce wildfire risks through improved land management and improving limits and regulations on greenhouse gas pollution.
A possible bond measure for wildfire prevention could be another answer. One could come through the California legislature next year and be on the state ballot in November. Drafts of a $4 billion measure have included $1.25 billion for forest management and wildfire prevention, according to Jon Christensen, a UCLA professor and founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA.
The bottom line is that wildfire smoke is a growing component of poor air-quality in the valley. But brighter days may be on the horizon. The hope is to stabilize the atmosphere by mid-century and avoid worst-case scenarios of the changing climate.
``Since California has already been at (trying to clean up the air) for some four decades, there is hope for the future,’’ said Christensen. ``Fascination with sensational doomsday predictions and desire for a simple answer seem to keep us from the long story of the path forward.’’