Another Record-breaking Fire Season in California
Wildfires rage in California year after year, with increasing frequency and intensity. This is driven by the climate crisis creating hot, dry conditions for wildfires to start, spread, and burn out of control. Spring comes earlier, melting snow more quickly, and reducing water availability during summer, which is lasting longer with more extreme temperatures. Less frequent but more intense rain along with with the extra snowmelt in spring triggers vegetation growth; then the long, hot summers dry out that vegetation, covering the state with kindling. These climate impacts, coupled with a systemic departure from smart tribal land management practices like controlled burns, leaves us setting new wildfire records every single year, destroying ecosystems and devastating communities.
2021 has been the worst wildfire season to date, with over 1.5 million acres burned across California already, and the season has just begun. So far this year, the Pacific Northwest has felt the brunt of this wildfire season, but Los Angeles is not out of the woods. The fire season for Southern California typically spans October through December, which is why Los Angeles officials urge residents to be prepared.
Wildfires, particularly the extreme events that we are experiencing more and more each year, have both immediate and long-term impacts on the health of people and the environment. But did you know that wildfires also impact the health of our waterways? Heal the Bay interviewed two experts this week on the impacts of wildfires on public health and on water quality.
We learned a lot from these experts. By removing vegetation, wildfires increase sediment and pollution runoff, which can affect both recreational and drinking water. Wildfires also release smoke pollution into our atmosphere with contaminants that are harmful to public health. These airborne contaminants eventually settle out onto surfaces like streets, sidewalks, and rooftops, where they remain until stormwater washes it all into our waterways. Scroll down to find links to these recorded interviews or to check out the transcripts for both of these conversations.
We urge you to take climate action now, whether through global systemic change, or directly in your home or your neighborhood to prepare for emergencies and make your community more climate resilient. Take the climate challenge with us – start by picking one action you can take today. But don’t stop there! Consider the skills, experiences, and resources you have to offer, and create a personal list of climate actions.
One action you can take right now is to sign up and join Heal the Bay virtually at 6 PM on Monday August 30th to learn about the Cool City Challenge, and how to become a Cool Block Leader to make real change in your neighborhood to tackle the climate crisis.
INSTAGRAM LIVE INTERVIEWS: ASK AN EXPERT
View this post on Instagram
Host: Alex Preso (Manager of Outreach, Heal the Bay)
Expert: Marisol Cira (Graduate Researcher in Civil and Environmental Engineering, UCLA)
Alex: Please introduce yourself and provide a little background on some of the work you do.
Marisol: I am a graduate researcher at UCLA in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, where I study the impacts of wildfires on beach water quality.
Alex: How does a wildfire impact water quality, specifically in the Ocean?
Marisol: Wildfires remove vegetation and alter the soil. When it rains, the vegetation and the soil that remain can no longer filter and retain the water like they used to. This increases the sediment and runoff that carry harmful contaminants and eventually make their way into our reservoirs, rivers, and oceans.
Alex: That is definitely not ideal! Would that have any impact on our freshwater and drinking water, too?
Marisol: Yes, wildfires do impact both recreational and drinking water quality. For example, they contaminate our groundwater because the contaminants can reach the water table, and the loss of vegetation can affect the aquifer recharge. In addition, the amount of sediment and runoff that flows into our reservoirs increases the maintenance needs and costs for that reservoir. Similarly, for our drinking water treatment plants, they might have to change operations to meet the water quality standards, and that also increases cost. Lastly, the contaminants that reach the beaches can be harmful to beachgoers and to wildlife.
Alex: Would you mind expanding on what kind of contaminants those are, and how they end up getting into our water?
Marisol: Studies have reported increases in nutrients, metals, water temperature, and turbidity, among other things. Following the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which burned approximately 100,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains, researchers reported increases in fecal indicator bacteria at beaches in Malibu. Although the fecal indicator bacteria are not harmful themselves, monitoring agencies do use them to indicate the presence of pathogens in water. What may be happening is that the wildfires, and the debris flows that follow, damage and disrupt the sewage infrastructure which contaminates downstream water quality with fecal matter. And, as mentioned earlier, the vegetation and the soil can no longer filter and retain these contaminants.
Alex: Heal the Bay tracks water quality testing at over 500 beaches statewide. Are wildfires impacting water quality right now?
Marisol: Water quality may return to normal within hours, or it could take up to 10 years, depending on the severity of the burn, the precipitation, and the contaminants. Specifically for fecal indicator bacteria, researchers reported elevated levels for up to 6 months. However, these levels are still being monitored as the burn area recovers.
Alex: I’ll give you a few more minutes to talk a little bit more about the research that you are doing, and the recent findings.
Marisol: We saw increases in the fecal indicator bacteria and turbidity following the Woolsey Fire, specifically after rain events, which is a concern for the health of beachgoers and wildlife. We hope that this research is able to help agencies protect our oceans and treat these contaminants.
Alex: Do you have any advice on how other people can get involved?
Marisol: Wildfire activity has increased globally and here in the Western US due to climate change. The frequency, duration, and season length are longer. It is important that we support candidates and measures that address climate change, and that we do what we can to reduce our carbon footprint.
View this post on Instagram
Host: Kayleigh Wade (Associate Director of Campaigns and Outreach, Heal the Bay)
Expert: Gilmar Flores (Senior Manager of Programs and Research, Breathe Southern California)
Kayleigh: Please introduce yourself. What’s your name, and what is your role at Breathe Southern California?
Gilmar: Thank you so much for having me on today. Hello everyone, my name is Gilmar Flores and I am the Senior Manager of Programs and Research at Breathe Southern California.
Kayleigh: What is Breathe Southern California’s mission? Can you give us a quick run-down of your organization?
Gilmar: Breathe Southern California is a non-profit organization. Its mission is to promote clean air and healthy lungs. We do that through education, research, technology, and advocacy. Our organization has over 50 programs that target with our mission of clean air and healthy lungs. We offer this through youth programs in regards to asthma, environmental factors, and vaping; and through community programs in regards to wildfires, asthma, and lung disease. We also have a professional membership society called the Trudeau Society, where professionals in the field can attend lectures and network.
Kayleigh: That is important information to know. Every year we have a wildfire season, so thank you for sharing those resources. How does wildfire smoke play a role in the air pollution problems facing Southern California?
Gilmar: Back in 2019, California was home to 15 of the 30 places in the United States with the worst air pollution. Out of those 15, San Diego ranked #10; Los Angeles, Long Beach and Anaheim ranked #6; and Riverside and San Bernardino ranked #2. On an average day, the air quality index of these cities in Southern California were in the moderate levels. For those who do not know what the air quality index is, it is an index that ranges from good, moderate, unhealthy, very unhealthy, and hazardous. So if you think about that, an average day in those cities were not even in the good section of air quality. We’re in the moderate section. So when wildfires burn within 50 or 100 miles of those cities, it causes the air quality to be 5 to 15 times worse than normal, and often 2 to 3 times worse than normal even on a non-fire day. So during these wildfire seasons, the air quality index in these parts of the country can reach hazardous levels, which are very unhealthy not only for the vulnerable populations, but for everyone.
Kayleigh: What is the connection between environmental injustices, public health, and wildfires?
Gilmar: There are a lot of connections, but one that I will cover today is the resource availability that these vulnerable populations tend not to have. One example that I will focus on is asthma. During fires, air quality management districts will urge people to stay inside with windows closed and doors closed until smoke levels subside. This is mainly targeted to vulnerable populations such as the elderly, those who have respiratory illness or cardiovascular illness, and also for children. But the problem is that keeping the windows and doors closed only helps if your windows and doors can actually close and keep the smoke out. There are blocks of old apartment complexes, either in Los Angeles, Riverside, or the Bay Area where smoke still comes through, and some of these complexes do not have installed ventilation systems that can help remove the indoor toxins from these settings. We know that in low-income communities, there tends to be a lot of chronic disease, like asthma. So these communities are usually more effected by the wildfire seasons. There are more examples. If we had more time, we could talk about native American tribes located in areas where fires are more prominent. We could also talk about farm workers in Ventura County who are exposed. They still have to work during wildfires, and don’t always have the proper masks while working, so cannot avoid the harms of wildfire smoke.
Kayleigh: More often than not, people do not have access to those resources, especially in low income communities and communities of color. What are some tools you would recommend to promote wildfire resilience?
Gilmar: There are several steps you can take to keep your family or yourself safe during wildfire seasons. But the primary way to be resilient would be to stop yourself from breathing smoke, especially when there is a wildfire nearby. A few steps that you can take is to check air quality. You can use websites such as https://fire.airnow.gov to check the air quality, avoid going outside, close windows and doors, run the AC for circulation and check the filtration, use air purifiers at home if possible, avoid frying foods while inside, wear N-95 masks (don’t just buy is and have it there – when you purchase it, test it out and make sure it fits well and covers your whole face), be aware of any evacuation orders, and be prepared to evacuate.
Kayleigh: What are the long-term impacts of pollution from wildfires on communities that are already impacted by environmental racism?
Gilmar: These communities are already experiencing health hazard burdens by just living near landfills, power stations, and major roads. They often struggle with contaminated water supply or elevated airborne particulate matter. And then these communities are exposed to longer harsher air conditions because of wildfires. We see a correlation between these kinds of environmental exposures and cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes, pulmonary disease such as lung cancer and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema, pneumonia exasperated among children and the elderly, low birth weights, and premature deaths.
Kayleigh: That information is very heavy, but thank you for sharing it. It is very helpful to pair that knowledge with the industrial activity that is happening in these communities. What types of pollutants, specifically, are found in wildfire smoke and ash?
Gilmar: When wood and other organic materials burn in wildfires, it produces a mixture of fine particulate matter and dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide, or volatile organic compounds. One of the major pollutants found in wildfire smoke is particulate matter (P.M. 2.5), which is a mixture of tiny solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air, which can be inhaled deeply into the lungs. The concern is that these particles, which make up most of the plume of smoke from wildfires, can get deep into the lungs and cause biological damage. Particulates can also effect the cardiovascular system by causing inflammation, and can also effect the nervous system. Some of the smallest particles can even cross into the blood stream and travel through other parts of your body effecting other organs.
Kayleigh: At some point after a wildfire, the atmosphere eventually clears out. But just as throwing away a piece of trash does not actually mean that it is gone, all of that pollution must remain in our environment in some way. Where does all of that pollution go?
Gilmar: Unfortunately, the pollution will eventually fall down to the ground. It’s going to fall onto the floors of our homes, onto vehicles, buildings, trees, and plants. It can even extend far beyond where the fire was actually burning. As an example, I visited Crater Lake up in Oregon back in 2019, and from the top of that mountain we could see the smoke from California crossing over, because it does not have any boundaries. So this pollution definitely will fall onto the ground and will either disburse into the soil or into water, and eventually make its way out to the ocean, effecting not only plant life but also the wildlife that lives in the ocean.
Kayleigh: It’s so important to remember that everything is connected, and there are no boundaries. Pollution will remain in our environment and continue to impact our health. What long-term effects does wildfire smoke have on the ability of our communities to be resilient to the climate crisis?
Gilmar: Wildfires will have far reaching impacts and effects and will ripple through communities as climate change continues to occur. Habitats will continue to get damaged, both on land and also in to sea. Air quality will be degraded, causing long term health impacts not only for us humans, but also for other animals. There will also be drinking water supply contamination. However, communities can still employ a number of strategies to be more resilient to wildfires. This includes zoning and building policies, landscape regulations, vegetation and forestry management, and public education and preparedness campaigns.
Kayleigh: Is there anything else you’d like to add or talk about that we didn’t already cover?
Gilmar: Extreme wildfires are becoming a yearly thing, especially here in the west. There are a few websites that I want to mention so all of you can be prepared, not only for those who suffer from a lung disease, but for everyone, especially if you have loved ones who do. A good website to follow is https://fire.airnow.gov, which provides you the air quality map index and smoke information when there are fires. It will show you what the air quality index is at that time and lets you know if you need to close the windows and stay inside. Another website is https://ww2.arb.ca.gov. They provide a lot of resources there. I know a lot of individuals do not have the luxury of owning an air purifier, so they provide examples of things you can do to still improve indoor air quality in your home during wildfire season. And you can follow Breathe SoCal on our social media platforms for awareness, and for additional information for workshops on lung disease, asthma, or environmental stewardship.
Kayleigh: We actually have a question from the audience: Do either of you know why, in California, there isn’t more fire prevention even though it’s become a yearly phenomenon.
Gilmar: There are preventative measures taken. Some examples include energy companies like SoCal Edison providing grants to non-profit organizations to provide those resources to communities. But one of the things that definitely has to happen is for folks to speak to elected officials and share your ideas, possibly for future legislation.
Kayleigh: There is definitely a need for infrastructure and a need for policy if we want to be more resilient as a community as the climate crisis accelerates.