Wildfire Smoke Puts at Risk the Health of Americans Living far from the Flames

wildfires map.jpg

People in Western Australia continue to battle more than 60 wildfires raging across the region. The fires have left unprecedented destruction in their wake, creeping close to Sydney and devouring hundreds of homes. Yet the damage doesn’t end there. Even people living far from the flames may suffer.

Today my NRDC colleagues released a report concluding that wildfire smoke can pose serious health risks to people even hundreds of miles away from a blaze. That means residents of cities and suburbs far from forests or grasslands may still be vulnerable to the asthma attacks, pneumonia, and more serious chronic lung diseases brought on by smoke.

More people than ever before will be exposed to these smoke risks since climate change will make fires worse.

I’ve traveled in Montana during fire season, and I remember the acrid smell in the air and the irritation in my throat when smoke drifted from a nearby blaze.  It’s alarming to know that smoke can travel hundreds of miles and cause significant health problems.  

My colleagues looked at data from the 2011 wildfire season and found that two-thirds of Americans—nearly 212 million people—lived in counties affected by smoke. Six states that didn’t even have major fires that year still had to deal with more than a week of medium- to high-density smoke conditions.

Texas topped the list of most smoke-affected states, with more than 25 million people living in places with wildfire smoke conditions for one week or more. Illinois was second, with nearly 12 million people living in areas with smoky conditions, and Florida came in third, with more than 11 million.

That smoke takes a toll. One Southern California fire season alone resulted in 69 premature deaths, 778 hospitalizations, 1,431 emergency room visits, and 47,605 outpatient visits. A recent study concluded that small children are especially at risk, and babies have been found to have lower birth weights after their mothers were exposed to wildfire smoke during pregnancy.

This news is troubling enough, but now we know the risks will increase. Climate change will intensify the drought and high temperatures that contribute to wildfires. Scientists expect fires to become larger and more frequent if we fail to address the climate crisis.

We must use this knowledge to protect our health and our children’s future. Communities must take steps to prepare for increases in smoke, including setting up more air monitors and alerting vulnerable populations about changing conditions.

At the same time, our nation must reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change. The Obama Administration has made important progress on this front. Last year it issued clean car standards that will cut carbon pollution from new cars in half by 2025—and save consumers $80 billion a year at the pump in the process. It is now preparing to set limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which represent the largest source of global warming emissions in our country. Click here to tell the administration you support these power plant standards.

The time to act is now, before fires become worse and more people are threatened. This latest report is sounding the alarm, and we must respond.