A triple digit heat wave, wildfires, and choking smoke: these are all things that California has experienced within the past week. Residents woke up on Wednesday to an apocalyptic landscape as smoke from the wildfires blotted out the sun and tinted the skies an eerie shade of orange. Currently, the state is battling more than two dozen wildfires in a season that has already scorched more than 2.5 million acres of land—a record figure—and the fire season runs for another four months.
Winds have blown smoke and ash into the Bay Area, lowering air quality to very unhealthy levels. The health effects of wildfire smoke aren’t fully understood, and the particles differ from other air pollution in that it contains a mix of gases and particles from burning vegetation, buildings, and other materials that can cause health problems. Studies have shown that when waves of smoke hit, the rate of hospital visits rises and many additional patients experience respiratory problems, heart attacks, and strokes. Wildfire smoke is especially dangerous during the pandemic, as smoke makes lungs more susceptible to diseases like COVID-19.
The risks are greater for people of color, who tend to live in areas already exposed to high levels of particulate pollution. According to a 2017 study, older Black people are three times more likely to be hospitalized for respiratory conditions because of smoke. Francesca Dominici, a biostatistics professor at Harvard and an author of the study, says, “Underrepresented minorities are experiencing a much higher health burden from pollution and wildfire smoke, and, now, COVID.”
So how can you protect yourself from the smoke? The CDC recommends limiting exposure to smoke by staying indoors with windows and doors closed and running air-conditioners in recirculation mode so that outside air isn’t drawn into your home. When outside, wearing N95 respirators are recommended, although these are in short supply. An alternative: wearing a mask made from different layers of fabrics, in particular tightly woven cotton and silk together, which can provide good filtration if the mask is closely fitted to your face. Ultimately, there’s only so much an individual can do to protect themselves. And unfortunately, as warming temperatures due to climate change have led to longer and more devastating fire seasons in California, these smoky conditions may become the new normal.