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Smoke from Western Wildfires Worsens Local Air Quality

Inklein / CC 4.0
The CZU lightning complex fire burns along Butano Ridge and in Pescadero Creek Park, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California.

As major wildfires burn out West and in Canada, the air quality in much of Massachusetts has ranged from "unhealthy for sensitive groups" to outright "unhealthy" — and experts warn that climate change will make the problem even worse.

“This week, while somewhat of an anomaly — we're not used to experiencing this kind of pollution event on the East Coast caused by West Coast fires — we're probably going to see that more and more as these events get larger and larger,” said Pamela Templer, an environmental scientist at Boston University.

Around 80 wildfires have been burning across almost 1.5 million acres in 12 states in the U.S. as of Sunday. They’re fueled by a mega drought and extreme heat days that have dried out soils and plants, Templer said. As a result, all it takes is a lightning strike or spark from another source to start a fire.

“I think the evidence is pretty clear that climate change is causing these extreme heat events and really intense droughts that are making fires worse than they otherwise would be,” she said. Templer’s expertise is in forest ecology, climate change, and air pollution.

Over the last week-and-a-half, air quality from the Outer Cape to the Coast and Islands has at times been deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups. As the fires rage on, experts warn that air quality alerts are likely to continue periodically.

“People with heart or lung disease such as asthma, older adults, children, teen-agers, and people who are active outdoors,” could all be considered sensitive groups, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. “People with lung disease are at greater risk from exposure to ozone, while people with either lung disease or heart disease are at greater risk from exposure to particle pollution.”

The problem with the smoke, Templer said, is that people and animals can breathe in particulates that get trapped in the lungs.

“Long-term exposure can lead to lung damage and cardiovascular disease,” she said. “So one or two days to a healthy person [is] probably not a big deal, but if you have an underlying condition like asthma or other health problems, people were feeling it the last couple of days.”

For the most part, officials say, individuals in sensitive groups should reduce prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion; take more breaks; do less intense activities; and follow asthma action plans.

When the air reaches unhealthy — or very unhealthy levels — everyone should consider making plans indoors.