The Impact of Wildfires on Air Pollution

The Impact of Wildfires on Air Pollution

While we’re stuck at home, smoke from wildfires is travelling the world. What is it doing to the air we breathe?

February 14, 2021 | Published by O2

Imagine this: you look up and the once bright blue sky is now a deep reddish orange. So red, in fact, that it seems as if the whole sky is ablaze. Impenetrable clouds of smoke have blocked out all but the sun’s red UV rays. It might almost be beautiful if it weren’t so frightening. The air is so heavy with smoke that it’s nearly impossible to take a deep breath, and causes you to immediately begin coughing.

This is not a scene from a post-apocalyptic film. No, this was the reality created by wildfires for people in Western Australia at the beginning of 2020, and the West Coast of the U.S. in late summer of the same year. The fires that burned in these regions — made worse by climate change — were some of the worst on record, but they weren’t limited to just the United States and Australia.

A global concern

Just over a year ago, these fires were a headline-grabbing story across the globe. Due in part to another important story you might have heard of, they seemed to disappear from news coverage. But even a global pandemic was no match for the wildfires that raged from California to Ukraine, and from Brazil to Australia. While our gaze was turned, they continued to burn. In fact, even the Arctic was ablaze last summer – a problem linked to global warming.

The smoke from these fires forms harmful clouds of gasses and fine particles that rise as high as 23 kilometres, travelling across time zones via air currents, flouting pandemic travel restrictions. Smoke from last summer’s Siberian wildfires has spread as far as Alaska and affected air quality in Seattle, while smoke from the fires in California, Oregon and Washington was detected as far east as the Netherlands. With wildfires burning on every continent but Antartica, it’s clear that wildfire smoke is incredibly pervasive. But what is it doing to the air we breathe?

Devastating impacts

The obvious impacts of wildfires are immediate and jarring: in the last few years, blazes around the world have caused untold destruction. Towering walls of flames have enveloped homes, animals, vegetation, and cities, leaving people and communities devastated.

But once the flames have subsided, it’s the smoke from these fires that may have the most insidious, long-lasting impact. If you’ve experienced wildfire smoke before, you know that it can cause eye irritation, coughing, wheezing, and can trigger asthma attacks.

The billowing, dense columns that rise high into our atmosphere are made up of harmful gasses and fine particles, or PM2.5. Having explored the impact of fine particulate matter in a recent blog post, we know just how devastating it can be to both your physical and mental health. Over time it decimates the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, causing everything from lung cancer to heart disease, and even adverse birth outcomes. While levels of PM2.5 across the United States have been decreasing, in states impacted by wildfires they are on the rise.

Although PM2.5 is the major cause of concern from wildfire smoke, these toxic plumes contain other dangerous gasses, such as ozone, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and nitrogen dioxide. As wildfires burn homes and man-made structures, the smoke they produce from paint and other chemicals creates even more hazards to our health.

How to protect yourself

There are a number of ways you can protect yourself from the hazards of wildfire smoke. While it’s always important to check the CDC’s guidelines, here are just a few of the ways you can protect yourself and your lungs.

  • Check the AQI: It’s important to check the Air Quality Index if you live in an affected region. The EPA says on days where the AQI is above 150 “some members of the general public may experience health effects,” while anything over 200 causes an increased health risk for everyone. To put into perspective just how bad the air quality can get from wildfires, during the 2020 wildfire season some parts of California had an AQI of over 700. At that level it is difficult to take even the smallest of breaths without a respirator.
  • Stay indoors: Remain indoors as much as possible when the AQI reaches dangerous levels. Whenever possible keep your windows and doors closed throughout the day.
  • Clean your air: If you live in a region affected by wildfire smoke you may not realize that it can significantly worsen the air inside your home too. Fine particulate matter can enter your home through cracks in windows and doors, HVAC systems with a fresh air intake, and can significantly affect your health even when it seems like you should be protected. Using an air purifier, or even a box fan with a filter taped to it, can significantly improve the air quality in your home.
  • Wear a respirator: If you must be outside, wear a respirator like the O2 Curve. Dust masks you find at the hardware store won’t provide the kind of protection you need from dangerous levels of PM2.5.

A man-made problem

We often think of wildfires as beasts or monsters – scary beings beyond human control. We prefer to think of them as Frankenstein’s monster, one created — or at least worsened — by human behaviour.

Nearly 85% of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans. That number goes up to 96% when you consider wildfires that threaten homes in the U.S. The causes of these range from unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes, arson, or any human-related activity that can create a spark. Researchers estimate that the cost to fight the fires in the United States alone is over $2 billion per year. This costly problem isn’t going away anytime soon either.

The new normal

As climate change leads to dryer, hotter, and longer summers wildfires will only continue to get worse. On average, wildfire seasons are growing longer; between 1978 and 2013, the wildfire season increased by nearly 19 percent in the United States. Wildfires have become one of the harshest symbols of global warming – an all-too-obvious emblem of climate change’s enduring consequences.

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