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Friday, May 16

Wildfire Smoke Carries Dire Health Impact Far: Nearly 22 states "had no wildfires within their borders ... but eight of them still had at least one week of medium to high-intensity smoky air."

San Diego wildfires send smoky air across southern California reads the headline from the Los Angeles Times, datelined today.  Nearly 20,000 acres from 10 "brushfires" had gone up in smoke by today. And it's not as if the wildfire season is just getting underway: because of historic drought conditions in California, wildfire season is now all year long.  

Whether or not the climate change is "human induced," as a study quoted in the following report terms it, and whether or not the climate change is simply part of a cycle, the situation with wildfires in combination with droughts is becoming dire in California.  But here, a suprising report from last year on smoke from wildfires throughout the USA:

Wildfire smoke becoming a serious health hazard

Wendy Koch, USA TODAY October 25, 2013

Study: Two-thirds of of Americans lived in areas with smoky air in 2011 as wildfire risks spread hundreds of miles downwind from burning acreage.

Texas was hit hardest in 2011, when medium to high-density smoke lingered at least a week in areas that are home to 25 million people, according to the analysis based on smoke data from federal weather satellites. Knowlton say most of the smoke came from wildfires, but the data don't tease out which ones were intentional for forest management. ["controlled" burns]

Illinois, which recorded no wildfires within its borders, ranked second with nearly 12 million residents affected by smoke that drifted in from elsewhere. The other eight states with the most residents exposed to smoky air were, in descending order: Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Alabama, Oklahoma and Iowa.

Nearly two dozen, or 22, states had no wildfires within their borders in 2011, but eight of them still had at least one week of medium to high-intensity smoky air: Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Only 18 states and the District of Columbia had no residents exposed to at least a week of smoke that year, although five of them -- Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah -- had acreage burn from wildfires.

The problem will only get worse, Knowlton says, citing scientific research that shows human-induced climate change is causing higher temperatures and, in some areas, more drought.

"Our landscapes are becoming more of a tinderbox," she says.

During 2011, the most recent year for which NRDC could get extensive government data, heat waves and drought made many areas vulnerable to wildfire. That year, 8.7 million acres burned nationwide -- the fourth highest since 1985, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, a federal agency. Even more acres, 9.3 million, burned last year.

"Heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer," Thomas Stocker, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Working Group 1, said last month in announcing the findings of the Fifth Assessment Report. He said the panel, created by the United Nations, generally expects to see "currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less.

"The nation's Western forests will be "increasingly affected by large and intense fires that occur more frequently," concludes the draft of the third National Climate Assessment, compiled by hundreds of scientists and released earlier this year.

That report says eastern forests are less likely to see immediate increases in wildfires, except if unusual conditions coalesce such as those that have occurred recently in Florida.

The health impacts can be dire. The 2003 wildfire season in southern California resulted in 69 premature deaths, 778 hospitalizations, 1,431 emergency room visits and 47,605 outpatient visits, according to a study led by Ralph Delfino of the University of California, Irvine.

The NRDC report says that while more states are trying to warn residents of the health risks posed by wildfires, more monitoring stations are needed. If air quality reports are poor or it looks smoky outside, the group recommends people stay indoors, keep windows closed and avoid using fireplaces or other items that create smoke.

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