If you traveled to Southern Oregon last summer, you might have caught a glimpse of what the new normal will look like across the U.S. West: In Ashland, where smoke from wildfires forced the cancellation of more than two dozen performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it was common to see people on the street wearing air masks.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that those masks (be sure to look for one that’s rated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as N95 or P100) will soon be an essential accessory for summertime in the West. Climate change and other factors are working to ignite more intense and frequent wildfires in the region, and more wildfires inevitably bring more smoke.
And wildfires don’t have to be burning locally to fill the mid-valley with smoke: In recent summers, fires burning as far away as Canada have funneled smoke into the region.
It used to be, as a fascinating story from The Associated Press explained this week, that experts considered the smoke from wildfires a relatively minor and short-lived nuisance, offering little health risk to anybody save the most vulnerable populations.
But as each successive wildfire season brought increasingly intense fires, scientists began taking another look at the potential risks from long-term exposure to smoke. The latest research on the topic is sobering — and comes with implications for public policy.
The biggest health hazards from wildfire smoke come from microscopic particles that can trigger heart attacks, breathing problems and other maladies. The particles, about 1/30th of the diameter of a human hair, penetrate deeply into the lungs to cause coughing, chest pain and asthma attacks. (This is why just slapping a dust mask over your mouth and nose likely isn’t going to get the job done; those masks won’t stop these tiny particles.) Children, the elderly and people with lung diseases or heart trouble are most at risk.
Over the past decade as many as 2,500 people each year died prematurely in the United States from short-term wildfire smoke exposure, according to Environmental Protection Agency scientists.
An associate professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, Jeffrey Pierce, has estimated that chronic smoke exposure causes about 20,000 premature deaths per year. Pierce said that the figure could double by the end of this century due to hotter, drier conditions and much longer fire seasons.
And the scope of the problem is only going to grow: Over the next three decades, more than 300 counties in the West will see more severe smoke waves from wildfires, sometimes lasting weeks longer than in years past, according to atmospheric researchers led by a team from Yale and Harvard.
We’ve worked hard over the last few years to seismically retrofit our public buildings. Maybe the next big project will involve adding smoke protections to those buildings. In Ashland, for example, voters in 2018 approved a bond measure that includes money to retrofit schools with “scrubbers” to filter smoke. Other public buildings and businesses already have them. A community alert system allows 6,500 people to receive emails and text messages when the National Weather Service issues smoke alerts. In Seattle, officials recently announced plans to retrofit five public buildings as smoke-free shelters.
Efforts such as these likely will be part of summertime life in the West for years to come. In the meantime, of course, we need to work on ways to reduce the intensity and frequency of these fires, including better management of forestlands and the use of tools like prescribed burning (better predictive techniques allow officials to precisely say where the smoke from these fires will go). The choice seems clear: We can deal with a little bit of inconvenience from an occasional prescribed burn — or try to deal with increasingly thick deal with skies that increasingly are choked with smoke every summer.