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Wildfire Smoke Causes Historic Air Pollution In Northern Nevada

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(AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

Dense smoke from wildfires burning in California fills the Washoe Valley halfway between Reno and Carson City, Nev. on Interstate 580 along the Sierra Nevada's eastern front, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020.

Record-breaking wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington are still raging, a month after they were ignited by dry lightning storms across the West.

In California alone, more than 3 million acres have burned and thousands of residents have been displaced.

So far, Nevada has been relatively lucky – we haven’t had the same amount of catastrophic fires. But in Washoe, Douglas, Lyon and Storey Counties, all those fires have choked the sky with smoke for the last month.

“If you’re outside for quite a bit of time you’ll definitely start to feel it in your lungs, maybe your eyes will start to get irritated, and at times, if you’re being really active outside, you’ll start coughing,” said Brendan Schnieder, an air quality specialist with Washoe County Health District Air Quality Management Division.

Schnieder said the county has four levels of air quality, and for the first time, the county issued a Level 2 alert for air quality.

“In that range, everyone in the population can be affected,” he said.

They also hit a record high for Air Quality Index for fine particulates, which is the air pollution in wildfire smoke.

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Schools in the area actually had to close because of the smoke.

“All children are considered a sensitive group in terms of air quality," Schnieder said, "As soon as the air pollution hits the unhealthy or sensitive groups category, all children, older adults can be affected.”

Schnieder also pointed out that Washoe County schools are trying to bring more fresh air into the classrooms because of the coronavirus pandemic but that was just not possible when the air outside wasn't healthy.

Wildfire smoke causes all kinds of public health problems, especially for people who already have respiratory illnesses.

 “We’ll definitely see an increase in people going to the hospital with lung problems like asthma and COPD, but it can cause far more serious complications like heart attacks and even premature death,” Schnieder said.

Danilo Dragoni is the bureau chief for the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Air Quality Planning. He said the smoke can move hundreds of miles.

“Right now, our monitors show that this smoke from California wildfires is reaching the eastern side Nevada and even further than that in Utah and Idaho,” he said.

Dragoni said people should avoid outdoor activities - if possible, because any outdoor activity will put people at risk for respiratory illnesses.

It is not just the smoke itself that causes problems, but it mixes with other chemicals in the air, which are heated up by the summer sun to create ozone, a potentially dangerous air pollutant.

“We’ve seen in just new research published this summer that ambulance dispatches spike after just short term, an hour or less, exposure to air pollutant,” said Vijay Limaye, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Limaye said climate change is fueling the wildfires and the extreme heat. Those are combining to put people's health at risk.

“It’s clear that the climate crisis is driving unprecedented fire risk across the region. That’s because we’re seeing early snowmelt, unprecedented searing heat and long-lasting drought all of those factors are combining,” he said.

When meeting with California leaders about the wildfires this week, President Donald Trump said more research needed to be done to see if climate change was behind the historic wildfire season and he said: "I don't think science knows," when talking about whether it was getting hotter.

Limaye called the president's remarks "flat wrong," noting that he had been studying climate change for 10 years. He said it is time to act aggressively to counter the impacts of climate change.

“Unfortunately, based on the trend lines, it does seem like Americans are going to be contending with historic wildfires threats in summers to come and the air pollution problems that come along with those fires,” he said.

The air pollution caused by the fires is having a tremendous impact on the health of people around the West, Limaye said, and that costs people money.

“The work that we’ve been doing shows that Americans right now are spending billions upon billions of dollars each year to deal with the health problems triggered by wildfire smoke,” he said.

Those pollution impacts are being felt even more dramatically in low-income and communities of color, Limaye said.

He would like to see a coordinated, multi-faceted, federally-led plan to address climate change and its impacts. 

“It is clear to me that the climate crisis is a people problem,” he said, “It is time that we demand that people’s health be prioritized by our government, and it’s response to this crisis.” 

Limaye wants to see decisions made about a variety issues from housing to air quality to be based on science with an eye to their climate impacts.

“We’re seeing the warning signals, front and center, everywhere we look around this country and it’s time for leadership.”

Guests

Brendan Schnieder, Air Quality Specialist, Washoe County Health District Air Quality Management Division; Vijay Limaye, Staff Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council; Danilo Dragoni, Bureau Chief, Nevada Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Air Quality Planning

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