When a single wildfire can ravage (as of Monday) nearly 867 square miles — an area roughly the size of the Olympic city of Tokyo — it is impossible to ignore. When it threatens to destroy your wife’s family’s small mountain hometown of Chester, California, causing its evacuation while you sit helplessly thousands of miles away, it deepens the fear and the anguish felt for loss experienced by so many due to the devastation this hellish blaze continues to produce.
Somehow, miraculously, Chester was spared. But, as reported by the Associated Press, what is known as the Dixie Fire rages on amid the threat of more unstable weather. It is the nation’s largest wildfire. Amid temperatures that are forecasted to top 100 degrees, and after more than a month of tireless dedication, more than 6,000 heroic firefighters continue the fight to somehow contain the blaze. “The U.S. Forest Service said it is operating in crisis mode, fully deploying firefighters and maxing out its support system,” says the AP.
It is important to realize that there will be a price to pay by all of us from this fire, as well as the more than 80 large wildfires currently burning across 12 U.S. states.
Even if the last cinder of these fires were doused tomorrow, no one in this country, or those around the world, will escape the damage caused to quality of life and human health.
The New York Times reports the Dixie Fire is now the largest source of potentially deadly air pollution in California. But it does not stop there. According to the Associated Press, smoke from this fire has already driven air pollution levels to unhealthy or very unhealthy levels in parts of Oregon and Idaho.
What the Times describes as “giant clouds of haze filled with health-damaging particles” are now flowing across the country. The Times says, “California’s fires and high ozone levels have turned the air in Salt Lake City and Denver into some of the dirtiest in the world, more harmful than Delhi’s or Beijing’s on many recent days … Smoke from wildfires across western Canada, Oregon and California has stained the skies and fouled the air as far away as Iowa, Minnesota and even New York City.”
As Mary Prunicki, the director of air pollution and health research at the Sean N. Parker Center for Asthma and Allergy Research at Stanford University, explains to the Times, recent research suggests that the smoke “gets worse with age.” It may grow more toxic as it undergoes chemical changes and reacts with sunlight and other molecules floating in the air. Over time, this smoke may form reactive compounds that can be especially damaging to the body once they are inhaled.
If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has made all of us more consciously aware of the air we breathe. What appears clear is that, when the threat of contracting the coronavirus is someday well behind us, the threat posed by air pollution is destined to remain. The escalating threat posed by wildfire smoke is but the most current reminder.
We often hear that to protect our health we should eat lots of fruits and vegetables. We should exercise regularly and not smoke. “These are age-old words of wisdom for a healthful life,” writes Dr. Wynne Armand in a recent Harvard Health post. “But when was the last time your doctors told you to avoid exposure to pollution?” Evidence has been accumulating for years about the impact of pollution on our health.
In the United States, air pollution has improved quite a bit since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, yet it remains a health threat that continues to have serious ongoing health impacts, both nationally and globally. “Numerous studies over the years have repeatedly shown that increased outdoor air levels of fine particulate matter correspond to increased hospitalizations for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbation, and other serious health problems,” says Armand. “Both long-term exposure and short-term exposure seem to matter.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, despite the progress made in cleaning the air since 1970, and the fact that visible air pollution is less frequent and widespread, “air pollution in the United States continues to harm people’s health and the environment.”
The EPA goes on to say that an extensive body of scientific evidence shows that long- and short-term exposures to fine particle pollution “can cause premature death and harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased hospital admissions and emergency department visits for heart attacks and strokes.”
Addressing air pollution — and pollution in general — must be considered among the important work to be done in putting our world back in order. They are added to an ever-increasing, long list, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by it all.
For me, it made me think of a recent little story from the Los Angeles Times about a very elderly Westminster resident who collapsed while trying to mow his front lawn. Neighbors quickly called 911, and soon four paramedics with the Orange County Fire Authority arrived. One whisked the fallen gentleman off to the hospital where he would receive treatment before returning home. Though the paramedics’ job was done, the lawn was half mowed. So, the remaining three paramedics finished it off before packing up to leave; they raked the lawn, putting the mower away and wheeling the trash bin to the side of the house. A neighbor’s social media post of a photo of the paramedics at work caught the eye of a Times reporter.
“This is something firefighters across the country do all the time,” fire apparatus engineer Tim Crawford reminded the reporter when contacted. “It’s routine for us.”
We have a lot of societal problems upon us, as well as some waiting for us as we try to regain some semblance of a normal life. Meeting the challenges that lie ahead is going to require a similar caring as seen by those paramedics, for one another and working together, if we are to get it done.