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Wildfire smoke impacts more Californians than ever, according to a new report

A CalFire crew rests to eat 48 hours into a shift, Wednesday, Sept 9, 2020.
Andrew Nixon
A CalFire crew rests to eat 48 hours into a shift, Wednesday, Sept 9, 2020.

Residents all over the state have felt the impacts of wildfire smoke. A new report from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office offers suggestions for legislators to respond.

Smoky skies have become the norm for California summers in recent years. A new report from California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office says that this trend will likely worsen in the next few years – which is also why it suggests that legislators take action to mitigate its impacts.

The report was released on Monday and is the first LAO report to focus solely on wildfire smoke. It offers a summary of what the state has learned about wildfire smoke in the last few years along with suggestions for legislators interested in crafting policy to combat its impact.

California has seen an increase in large, high-severity wildfires: Twelve of the 20 largest wildfires in the state’s recorded history have occurred in just the last five years, the report notes. As a result, much of the state has seen worsening air quality. That comes with risks for Californians, especially those who are more vulnerable due to pre-existing health conditions or communities who don’t have the necessary infrastructure or resources to endure smokey periods safely.

But the report emphasizes an important lesson: Wildfire smoke isn’t inherently unnatural. Before European settlers arrived, naturally-occurring fires and burns led by Indigenous communities were a normal part of this area’s ecosystem. Part of that reality includes smoke from fires.

“It was probably pretty normal to have smoky skies through a lot of summer and fall,” said Helen Kerstein, a principal fiscal and policy analyst who prepared the report.

Kerstein said that this can come as a surprise to some. She lives in the Sacramento area and said that she’s personally seen a stark increase in the amount of smoke in recent summers versus what she saw decades ago, when there was hardly any smoke at all.

The future, she said, should probably be somewhere in the middle.

“Very minimal wildfire smoke and wildland smoke — that’s maybe more of the aberration, and we’re going to have to get used to some level of smoke,” she said.

She said some techniques to manage severe wildfire would add smoke as well.

“Prescribed fire and cultural burning can be really important tools in improving forest and landscape health, and there's going to be some smoke associated with that.” she said.

The report adds that there is a difference between smoke from those management techniques and smoke seen in recent years from severe wildfires. Massive, high-intensity wildfires emit much more smoke compared to low-to-moderate severity fires that were historically common in California. That increase in smoke comes with a variety of health risks, both physical and psychological.

“The wildfires can occur hundreds of miles away, but the smoke drifts down and can linger for weeks and weeks at a time,” said David Eisenman, director of UCLA’s Center for Public Health and Disasters. “And there’s no doubt that we’ll have more of this experience in California.”

Eisenman’s research on the topic, referenced in the report, shows that far-reaching, lingering smoke has impacted the mental health of Californians all over the state. He compared its impacts to those associated with the early-pandemic “lockdown,” when people were advised to stay indoors as much as possible.

Heavy smoke, which can be physically dangerous, also keeps people indoors. Eisenman said the smoke then cuts people off from community support and can add to economic distress.

Both Eisenman and Kerstein say that researchers still have questions about the specific impacts of widespread, lingering wildfire smoke. For now, the report suggests that legislators should support ongoing research to fill these “knowledge gaps,” as well as fund community-level efforts to equip people with the supplies they need to physically weather smokey periods.

“Some level of smoke is probably going to be with us,” said Kerstein. “We really need to kind of learn how to live with that and how to mitigate those impacts, especially on the most vulnerable Californians.”

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