Where there’s wildfire, there’s smoke. Protecting ‘clean-air refugees.’

Why We Wrote This

Taking action on climate change can help people from feeling helpless. Out West, officials are fighting not just wildfires, but smoke, saying, “We want the most vulnerable people in our community to know they’re not alone.”

Elaine Thompson/AP
A man twirls a child in a waterfront park as downtown Seattle disappears in a smoky haze, Aug. 19, 2018. Wildfire smoke produced the lowest air quality readings ever recorded in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and a handful of other Western cities the past two years.

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Wildfire smoke has produced the lowest air quality readings ever recorded in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and a handful of other Western cities the past two years. Public health concerns over smoke have prodded elected officials across the region to seek remedies.

In Seattle, five public buildings have been designated as clean-air centers, with filtration systems upgraded to reduce airborne pollutants. “There was the realization that we need to be prepared for [wildfire smoke] going forward,” says Julia Reed, a mayoral adviser, about the $450,000 pilot project.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats from Oregon, have proposed legislation that would provide federal funding to communities to set up emergency smoke shelters. “We’re looking at a wave of clean-air refugees,” Senator Wyden says.

The pall that settles over Western cities can likewise darken the mood of residents. Libby Metcalf, a University of Montana researcher, suggests that bringing people together to discuss their experiences can alleviate the mental health effects. “It’s a way for people to feel like they don’t have to face what’s happening on their own,” she says.

Summer in Seattle offers a luminous respite from the rest of the year. The clouds depart and carry away the rains as the sky shades cobalt blue and the sun casts golden light from Puget Sound to Mount Rainier. The city feels liberated.

Or so residents recall of an earlier time. In the past decade, summer has tended to bring an unseasonal gray in the form of wildfire smoke, trapping the city in a Beijing-like haze for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Last year, smoke from blazes in eastern Washington, Oregon, California, and Canada caused air quality in Seattle to drop to unhealthy levels for 24 days, matching the 2017 total.

The city has responded by designating two community centers and three other public buildings as clean-air centers where residents can take shelter when wildfires turn the skies ashen. The $450,000 pilot project has funded upgrades to each facility’s filtration system to reduce airborne pollutants. Julia Reed, a senior policy adviser to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who announced the city’s plan in June, explains that recent megafires in the West forced a reckoning with the region’s hotter, drier summers.

“When the smoke came in again last year, it was like, ‘Wow, this is happening – this is climate change affecting our community right now,’” Ms. Reed says. “There was the realization that we need to be prepared for this kind of thing going forward.”

Wildfire smoke has produced the lowest air quality readings ever recorded in a handful of Western cities the past two years, including San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. The rising public health concerns over the increasing size, frequency, and intensity of wildfires have prodded elected officials across the West to seek remedies. Their proposals advance practical solutions that, on another level, counter the dual sense of futility and isolation that climate change can provoke.

United States Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats from Oregon, have introduced legislation that would provide federal funding to communities to improve ventilation systems in public buildings and set up emergency smoke shelters. A related grant program would cover the cost to smokeproof the homes of low-income residents.

“What I’ve seen in the region, particularly last summer, is that we’re looking at a wave of clean-air refugees,” Senator Wyden says. “The fact is, this is a public health emergency, and people are getting pounded. There has to be a way to help them.”

Wildfires release particulate matter that can aggravate respiratory and heart ailments. Children and seniors face the greatest risk, and researchers estimate that the annual number of premature deaths linked to wildfire smoke could climb from 17,000 to 42,000 by 2050. 

Most homes in Seattle lack air conditioning and indoor air filters, and even with portable air purifiers available for under $100, the cost can prove excessive for people on a fixed income. The city established three of its clean-air centers in areas with higher numbers of low-income residents, seniors, and homeless people. Ms. Reed describes the new program as an effort to protect their mental health as much as their physical well-being.

“Community cohesion and an understanding that all of us are having to confront climate change is central to this plan,” she says. “We want the most vulnerable people in our community to know they’re not alone.”

“It’s about now”

A strange sort of fog invaded the University of California, Davis on what had started as a cloudless summer day in 2008. Lisa Miller stared out from her office window at the California National Primate Research Center located on the campus.

The midday haze puzzled Ms. Miller, who leads the center’s respiratory diseases unit, until she remembered that several large wildfires were burning in Northern California. She soon realized that the fires presented an inadvertent opportunity to study the effects of exposure to wildfire smoke on 50 rhesus macaque monkeys born weeks earlier.

Ms. Miller has tracked their respiratory health over the years, comparing them with another group of monkeys born a year later when skies remained mostly clear. She has found worrisome results.

The monkeys exposed to smoke showed evidence of conditions that impair breathing, and their immune systems appear less resistant to infection. Ms. Miller offers a caveat to the findings, pointing out that the monkeys, by virtue of living outside, inhaled more smoke than most humans would breathe during wildfires.

“But the bottom line is that it’s the youngsters that are most susceptible to these kinds of environmental events,” she says. “So anything we can do to reduce the amount of exposure of youngsters to wildfires and smoke – whether at home or at school – could have significant impact on their health for a lifetime.”

The nascent health research into wildfire smoke reflects the surging threat that megafires pose to the West. The region’s fire season has swelled to some 250 days, or 105 days longer than in 1970, and wildfires have burned an average of 7 million acres a year since 2000, almost twice the annual total during the 1990s.

This summer, aside from Alaska, fewer catastrophic wildfires have ignited in the West than at the same point in either of the past two years. Fire researchers and climate scientists regard the reprieve as temporary – a cautionary note with particular resonance in California.

The deadliest and most destructive blaze in California’s history struck last November in and around the city of Paradise, killing 86 people and incinerating nearly 14,000 homes. Haze from the fire shrouded Northern California and drifted 150 miles south to the San Francisco Bay Area, where one county opened smoke shelters.

“The air was disgusting,” says Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland. “You didn’t want to breathe.” She has proposed legislation to establish clean-air shelters through a state grant program that would cover the cost to retrofit ventilation systems in schools, libraries, and community and senior centers.

“If this is our new normal, we need to address it,” she says. “We need to think about how we can provide safe haven for people on fixed incomes, seniors, and others without access to clean air where they live.”

The state has begun shifting its forest management strategy toward preventive efforts to reduce wildfire destruction. Air quality experts assert that, in similar fashion, policymakers should embrace new methods for shielding residents from smoke.

“The last couple years have made it clear that we have to change our thinking about both fires and smoke,” says Alan Abbs, a legislative officer with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The public agency backs Ms. Wicks’ bill. “It’s not just about preparing for the future. It’s about now.”

Emotional oases

Seattle officials have enlisted Dan Jaffe, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Washington, to analyze the effectiveness of the city’s clean-air centers. In his work, he has shown that the West’s wildfires nullify much of the progress made in lowering air pollution through reduced vehicle emissions and dependence on coal.

“Most of us live in the Northwest because we like getting outside and enjoying the outdoors,” he says. “To have all that smoke keep coming through, it’s really depressing.”

The mental health effects of extended exposure to wildfire smoke remain even less understood than the physical toll, largely because megafires are a relatively new force in nature.

In one of the few studies to explore the topic, a team of Canadian scientists examined the psychological fallout from wildfire smoke on four communities in the Northwest Territories in 2014. They found that residents admitted to emergency rooms that summer reported feelings of fear, despair, and isolation at higher rates compared with those admitted the prior two years.

The study of how people interact with and react to the environment, including their ability to adapt to climate change, occupies a group of researchers in the Human Dimensions Lab at the University of Montana in Missoula. The city spreads across a valley that fills with smoke from fires for varying stretches every year, and in 2017, residents experienced its worst air quality day on record.

Libby Metcalf, the lab’s co-director, has learned that giving residents a chance to come together to discuss their experiences alleviates anxiety about their fate and the planet’s. “There’s a need to have a community gathering space to share stories about wildfire,” she says. “It’s a way for people to feel like they don’t have to face what’s happening on their own.”

The American Psychological Association has identified communal support as essential to easing the depression, desolation, and resignation that can burden people as they cope with the impact of climate change. The legislation that Senators Wyden and Merkley proposed earlier this year to safeguard communities from wildfire smoke would create a federal grant program to fortify crisis services for physical and mental health alike.

“It’s extremely valuable to bring people together to help them with what they’re going through,” Senator Wyden says. “That’s even more true for low-income people, seniors, and people with health care concerns who might not have the means to get help otherwise.”

For Seattle residents unable to afford air conditioning or a trip out of town, or who lack a support network, the city’s clean-air centers could serve as emotional oases amid the haze. Ms. Reed, the mayoral adviser, views the centers as places suited for collective catharsis.

“All of us see climate change happening right outside our window,” she says. “Coming together is a way to make people feel less helpless.”

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