West Coast Inferno— Wildfires Ravage California, Oregon, and Washington


U.S. Marines

“Camp Pendleton fire [Image 4 of 9]” by DVIDSHUB is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Ella Castrillon, Staff Writer

With 33 people confirmed dead and more than 5 million acres of land burned, the latest news from California has left most climate scientists shocked and proves that the hardships of 2020 aren’t over. The smoke drifting along the west coast states of California, Washington, and Oregon has lowered air quality and forced many residents to stay indoors, seeking refuge from the yellow, haze filled skies. In the past few weeks, concerns have been raised about everything from what the fires and droughts mean for the health of those living out west to their ability to continue following their normal routines. 

A Different Life For Residents in California

In addition to destroying forests, the fires have also burned thousands of houses, power lines , and other infrastructure, forcing people that live in these states to find a new normal. To avoid breathing in the haze, homeowners are buying personal air-quality devices to use on their property and have put towels around their door frames and windows. Additionally, most residents were advised by doctors to purify their in-door air and avoid exertion. JoEllen Depakakibo, who owns a coffee shop in San Francisco, has a new routine to accommodate the changing air quality. Every morning, she checks the pollution levels and makes a decision about whether or not to open. Depakakibo has now become used to the numbers and can immediately tell when the data reflects “unhealthy,” or  “hazardous” conditions.  

Going outside in California, even for people with healthy lungs, is frowned upon. According to Michael Jerrett, a professor at the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, “Exposure can lead to immediate problems such as headaches, coughing and wheezing, and a person can become short of breath and experience a racing heartbeat.” The smoke can also be dangerous for anyone with a respiratory-related illness such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma. Long-term effects of exposure to smoke and haze includes heart attacks, strokes, depression and even anxiety. One young resident of Portland, Oregon, Debbie Scott’s daughter, has always struggled with mild asthma. Recently, she suffered an anxiety attack and had difficulty breathing because of the smog. Scott’s daughter is not alone in her health struggles as other residents of Oregon have complained of respiratory illnesses, which have all been linked to the presence of haze and smoke. 

Wildfires and the Pandemic  

While masks have proved to be an asset in fighting the spread of COVID-19, they offered residents of California, Oregon, and Washington little reprieve from the smoke. Research indicates that while cloth masks might be more breathable, their filters are not advanced enough to stop air particles from getting into the mask. The particles released by these wildfires are extremely unsafe. Investigative reporting by The Washington Post revealed that the particles released by wildfires are about 10 to 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, allowing them to slip into cloth masks, get to our heart and lungs, and even diffuse into our bloodstream easily. Although N95s have proven to be more effective than cloth masks, they are expensive and, due to the novel Coronavirus, limited in supply as they are needed by health-care workers. The wildfires will continue to exacerbate the pandemic’s toll on American society and lives unless they are brought under control. 

Human Impact and Global Warming

The wildfires raging on the west coast can largely be attributed to global warming. In the fall, winds intensified even more than usual causing the west coast climate to become excessively dry. This change in climate not only increased the damage done by compound disasters (when more than one extreme event takes place at the same time) but also the likelihood of recurrence as greenhouse gas emissions remain high and humans continue to harm the environment. While the fires in California were expected to occur, climate scientists predicted we wouldn’t have this issue until several more decades. Research conducted from a large collection of climate models indicates that the probability of the earth experiencing dry periods with extremely hot weather over the course of the next few decades is 100. Results provided by Noah S. Diffenbaugh, an american climate scientist at Stanford University, in his research clearly demonstrates that human activity has contributed to deforestation, wildfires, and increased fuel emission output and will affect all of our lives in the near future. 

In honor of climate week this September, scientists adjusted the digital clock in New York City’s Union Square to show time we have left to act on climate change. With little more than seven years left on the clock, many people consider it to be the most important number in the world.