Category Archives: Wildfire

Smoke from California fires may have killed more than 1,000 people

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 19: Smoke blankets the area from local fires in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, August 19, 2020. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Paul Rogers, September 25, 2020

Heavy smoke from wildfires that choked much of California in recent weeks was more than an annoyance.

It was deadly. And it almost certainly killed more people than the flames from the massive fires themselves, health experts say.

Between Aug. 1 and Sept. 10, the historically bad concentrations of wildfire smoke were responsible for at least 1,200 and possibly up to 3,000 deaths in California that otherwise would not have occurred, according to an estimate by researchers at Stanford University. Those fatalities were among people 65 and older, most of whom were living with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory ailments.

By comparison, through Wednesday, 26 people have died directly in wildfires this year statewide.

“Clean air is much more important than we realize,” said Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at Stanford who calculated the impacts. “When you look at it on a population level, you can see very clearly that breathing clean air has huge public health benefits, and breathing dirty air has disastrous consequences.”

Decades of medical research has shown that soot is among the most dangerous types of air pollution. Known as “PM 2.5,” for particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, the microscopic soot particles are so small that it would take 30 or more to span the width of a human hair.

Generated by diesel trucks, power plants, fireplaces and other sources, the tiny particles can travel deep into the lungs, even entering the bloodstream, when people breathe them in high concentrations.

In mild levels they cause itchy eyes and sore throats, coughing and a tight feeling in the chest. In more severe instances, they can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes or respiratory failure, particularly in the elderly, infants and people with heart and lung problems.

Smoke levels broke all-time records in California. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District called 30 “Spare the Air” days in a row from Aug. 18 to Sept. 16. Soot levels exceeded federal health standards for 19 days. Air quality was even worse in the Sierra, the Sacramento Valley and parts of Southern California, where it reached 10 to 15 times the federal health standard. On Sept. 9, smoke turned the air across Northern California an apocalyptic orange.

Burke and Sam Heft-Neal, a research scholar at Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, looked at a study published last year that used Medicare data to show that when levels of particulate pollution increased around the United States, the death rate of people 65 and older also increased, as did emergency room visits.

That study, by researchers at the University of Illinois and Georgia State University, found that for each day particulate air pollution increased by about 10% over typical levels — or 1 microgram per cubic meter — there was an increase in deaths and emergency room visits among people over 65 during the next three days.

California has roughly 6 million people older than 65. The Stanford researchers compared air pollution readings during California’s fires with increased death rates and emergency room rates from the previous study. They concluded at least 1,200 “excess deaths” occurred from Aug. 1 to Sept. 10 in California, along with about 4,800 extra emergency room visits.

“These are hidden deaths,” Burke said. “These are people who were probably already sick but for whom air pollution made them even sicker.”

Burke noted Stanford’s analysis doesn’t include young children or people under 65 with serious respiratory or heart conditions.

Other researchers say they generally support Stanford’s conclusions.

“It makes total sense,” said Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco and a member of the California Air Resources Board. “It should give us pause.”

In recent days, Bay Area air has cleared. But there is still at least another month of fire season.

Balmes and other experts say it’s important when people can smell smoke outdoors that they go inside and close doors and windows. On very smoky days, towels, masking tape or painter’s tape can block leaks. Air purifiers and wearing N95 or KN95 masks also can help.

“I don’t want to panic people who are healthy and without pre-existing disease, but we should reduce exposure as much as possible,” Balmes said. “You should stay indoors and not be outside any more than you have to be. Exercising outdoors when the air quality is bad is particularly problematic.”

The big unanswered question is whether exposure to thick wildfire smoke has long-term effects on healthy people. A study published this summer by the University of Montana found that of 95 people who lived in the small town of Seeley Lake near Missoula — where wildfire smoke choked the area for 49 days in 2017 — roughly one-third had compromised lung function two years later.

Other studies of wildland firefighters are ongoing. But the public and media often pay more attention to flames than smoke, because we’ve evolved that way, said Dr. Anthony Harris, medical director at WorkCare, a health care company based in Anaheim.

“Those things that are immediate we see and are alarmed by,” he said of the flames. “But studies show that fear only lasts for about two weeks in terms of behavior modification. So the notion that I might have a poor outcome in 15 years because of the smoke I am inhaling today just doesn’t cause a rise in the awareness of people.”

Year of calamities taking toll on mental health

Mental health professional: “In the past two weeks, my practice has exploded.”

San Francisco Chronicle, by Steve Rubenstein and Nora Mishanec, Sep. 11, 2020
Michael Waddell, a professional dog walker, out in Alamo Square Friday. He said the loss of dog-walking business has caused him more stress than the recent meteorological calamities.
Michael Waddell, a professional dog walker, out in Alamo Square Friday. He said the loss of dog-walking business has caused him more stress than the recent meteorological calamities. Photo: Nora Mishanec / The Chronicle

In a year of wondering what could possibly come next, the next things just keep on coming.

After eight months, they’re starting to add up, say mental health experts. And there’s lots of 2020 left, plenty of time for more next things.

“I’ve been hearing the word ‘apocalyptic’ a lot,” said San Francisco psychiatrist Scott Lauze. “I’m doing a tremendous amount of hand-holding these days. You can’t even rely on the color of the sky anymore.”

Lauze, in private practice for three decades, said he had never seen the call for his services take off like right now.

“In the past two months, there was a significant uptick in demand,” he said. “In the past two weeks, my practice has exploded.”

Pandemic, social unrest, heat waves. Wildfires. Smoke. Mass evacuations. Therapists call them stressors, and there has been no shortage of things to get stressed over.

And this just in: ash raining from the heavens, and darkness at noon.

“I couldn’t fall asleep,” said San Francisco nurse Valieree MacGlaun, who works the night shift and was walking home Friday on Divisadero Street from the VA hospital in her scrubs.

She said she feels overwhelmed, though her job is to help other people overcome feeling overwhelmed.

“This is my calling,” she said. “But you have to take care of yourself.”

Connie and Michael VonDohlen flew from their home in Tennessee to San Francisco on Wednesday to attend their daughter’s wedding, just in time for the dark orange daytime skies that made some locals say it felt like living on Mars. Streets were deserted. The VonDohlens, who don’t seem to shock easily, said they were shocked.

“We thought we had gone into the Twilight Zone,” Michael VonDohlen said. “I was expecting zombies to jump out from every doorway.”

“The fires, added to the pandemic, and the inability to escape — all that adds to the potential for hopelessness,” said emergency room psychiatrist Yener Balan, head of behavioral health services at Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

Calamity and malaise are part of the human condition, he said, and pondering the world wars endured by prior generations can put a virus or a wildfire in perspective.

Coronavirus live updates: SF urges people to stay inside due…
“As a species, we are resilient,” he said. “Many generations have seen this level of calamity.”

Taking care of oneself, living in the moment, checking in with family and friends, getting enough exercise and sleep — those are the keys to coping, Balan said. And turning off the TV and the computer when enough is enough — that helps, too. It also reduces exposure to the added stresses of a national election and its apocalyptic nuances.

“Just when you think you’re beginning to deal with one disaster, another one comes along,” said David Spiegel, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University. “Patients who have been stable are experiencing an exacerbation of depression and anxiety.”

The year 2020, he said, is turning out to be a “remarkable test of everyone’s ability to cope.”

Trying to cope in Alamo Square, while holding three dogs on a leash, was professional dog walker Michael Waddell. He used to wear a plain mask, for the virus. Now he wears a mask with an air filter, for the virus and the smoke. Different disaster, different mask.

Two in 5 U.S. adults say they are “struggling with mental health or substance abuse” since the pandemic hit, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the “prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder” were triple those of last year, the report added.

Even if psychiatrists are doing more business these days, Waddell said, dog walkers aren’t. Business has largely fallen off as people staying home can walk their own dogs.

Waddell’s usual complement of dogs is six. Losing half his income, Waddell said, “has added more to my immediate stress than the smoke or the wildfires.”

Dogs, who have no problem living in the moment, help. So do hobbies, said Melissa Smith, who was waiting for 5-McAllister bus. She said her therapy was to try “old lady hobbies.”

“This is the perfect excuse to take up knitting,” she said. “It’s a good outlet for the frustration. You need something to channel your energy.”

Smith was on her way home, where the knitting was waiting.

“What better place to practice peace than the middle of a storm?” she said. “I just think, after this, we are all going to be so resilient.”

Macron declares international crisis with 165,000 fires burning across Amazon Rainforest, 70,000 in Brazil

The Energy Mix, August 23, 2019
Emmanuel Macron / Twitter

With inadequate firefighting resources leaving massive swaths of the environmentally crucial Amazon rainforest in flames, and Brazil’s conspiracy-breathing president falsely blaming environmentalists and discounting his own government’s data, French President Emmanuel Macron is declaring an “international crisis” and urging the G7 countries to “discuss this crisis” at their meeting this weekend.

More than 165,000 fires were burning as of yesterday, more than 70,000 in Brazil.

“Satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows an 85% increase in the rate of forest fires, with just half of these fires occurring in the Amazon,” UN Climate Action reports. “These fires are not just affecting Brazil; several South American countries, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Colombia, are also currently dealing with forest fires.”

The fires “commonly occur during the dry season, caused by natural events such as lightning strikes as well as by farmers and loggers clearing land for grazing,” the publication explains. “Since July, there has been a sharp rise in deforestation, followed by an increase in burning in August. Local newspapers have reported that local farmers have been organizing fire days to illegally deforest land for cattle ranching.”

“What’s making it worse, say some, are some of the economic and environmental policies put in place by the Brazilian government under the leadership of President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who has questioned the existence of climate change,” CBC says. “With Brazil holding roughly 60% of the Amazon rainforest, there are concerns about what effects the fires will have ecologically and environmentally, particularly their potential to accelerate climate change.”

The immediate impacts are already spreading far and wide. “According to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), the smoke from these fires is spreading across the Amazon region and as far as the Atlantic coast,” Climate Action writes. “The smoke has been so severe that it caused the skies to darken, plunging São Paulo into a blackout, and turning fresh water black despite being more than 2,000 miles away from the fires.”

At more than 5.5 million square kilometres, CBC notes that the Amazon rainforest “is home to roughly 40,000 plant species, 1,300 bird species and 2.5 million species of insects.” But Bolsonaro, who apparently takes umbrage at his international portrayal as “Capitão Motoserra” (Captain Chainsaw), “has opened up the rainforest for more development. He’s also transferred responsibility for the demarcation of Indigenous lands to the Agriculture Ministry, a move that some compare with a fox guarding the chicken coop.”

“This is the time of year when farmers set fires for cultivation and farming,” said Christian Poirier, program director for the non-profit Amazon Watch. But compared to the first seven months of 2018, “there’s been a 60% jump in deforestation,” he added. “What we’re seeing here is a direct result of mismanagement—the intentional environmental mismanagement by this government.”

Bolsonaro “has also been accused of turning a blind eye to illegal practices by farmers and those looking to make money from tearing down trees,” CBC says. “It’s extremely dangerous in that it gives carte blanche to illegal foresters, to land-grabbing mafias and illegal miners, who are now operating with impunity,” Poirier warned. “And we see fires as a result of that.”

CBC notes that the impacts of change in the Amazon, a “unique and important part of Earth’s ecosystem” that “exchanges a large amount of energy and water with the atmosphere”, don’t end at Brazil’s border.

“We are very concerned about these fires,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary General António Guterres, “both for the immediate damage that they are causing and also because sustaining forest is crucial in our fight against climate change.”

“The Amazon rainforest is somewhat anomalous in that it is the biggest system of its kind on the planet in terms of how it feeds itself water,” explained Prof. Kai Chan of the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. That mechanism “isn’t just sustaining rainforest but affecting the rain cycle elsewhere. If it breaks down, it will have major implications…it’s a massive issue.”

He added that “if we lose a few more percentage points of rainforest, we’re at risk of losing this whole system.” And “if we do reach that tipping point and the Amazon starts to shift toward being more savannah-like, that will affect precipitation…it will have a major impact on the global scale.”

Bizarrely, and with zero evidence, “Bolsonaro and his administration say media organizations are exploiting the fires to undermine his government,” CBC writes. “The Brazilian president also said there was a ‘very strong’ indication that some non-governmental groups could be setting blazes in retaliation for losing state funds.”

NGOs, needless to say, dispute the claim.

The latest polling in Brazil, meanwhile, shows that a massive 90% of voters—including the majority of Bolsonaro supporters, politicians representing rural and agriculture constituencies, and evangelicals want the country to intensify its efforts against Amazon deforestation, Avaaz reports.

“Despite the general assumption that the matter creates divergence between the conservative and the progressive, our surveys reveal that congressmen and voters across the political spectrum agree on one thing: the Amazon is a source of national pride, and its preservation is essential for our identity and the health of the environment, in Brazil and all over the world,” said Senior Campaign Coordinator Diego Casaes.