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CHICO — At one point during the Camp Fire, Chico State University student Cyndi Ledet went over to her friend’s house for comfort. The air was smoky and orange still, and Chico was under a haze caused by an air inversion — trapping lethal levels of smoke over the city.
“I walked five minutes away and got in my car with my mask on. I used my mask the whole way there; didn’t open my mouth once,” she said. When Ledet arrived, she tried say “Hello,” but all that came out was a strangled rasp. She’d already lost her voice.
“I was terrified,” she said. “It felt like what I would imagine it would feel living in a warzone — just not even being able to step outside. Not being able to see anything, and feeling other people’s terror as well.”
Ledet suffered from asthma and seasonal allergies before the fire, and she said the smoke from the Camp Fire has since caused her severe throat pain. She’s also had increasingly worse congestion and acid reflux, as well as a weaker immune system overall.
“It was terrifying to know that there were so many people out there that may not have known how hazardous the smoke really was,” she said. “They were breathing in entire houses worth of of gunk.”
Ledet said she would watch people on her street ride their bikes or smoke a cigarette in the middle of the worst air quality days.
“The smoke completely knocked me out of commission and my ability to work or anything like that for at least the first three weeks after the Camp Fire,” she said. “So basically right until it rained — which was, of course, a miraculous blessing for all of us.”
Need to know
Because toxic smoke from fires in the wildland-urban interface is such a new phenomenon, we’re still learning how to best get information about it — and that includes gathering information from the public, as well as from official air monitors, during the event itself.
During the smoke event, Ledet downloaded an application on her phone called AirVisual that helps track local air conditions around the world, with a “leaderboard” of the worst air in the world every day. She said she compulsively checked every day to see what the air quality was like in Chico.
“We wound up having the most hazardous air conditions in the entire world for about a week and a half,” she said.
On Nov. 15, Chico and Gridley both clocked a jaw-dropping 365 on the Air Quality Index. A day later — Nov. 16 — Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose were recorded as the No. 1, No. 4, No. 6 and No. 8 cities with the worst air quality in the world, respectively, according to an analysis from Berkeley Earth, a climate science nonprofit. The cities of Sacramento and San Francisco closed their schools, following Butte County’s suit.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has its own phone app for tracking air quality and smoke events, called SmokeSense.
In 2017, the app had approximately 50,000 entries. In 2018, there were more than 200,000, said Dr. Wayne Cascio, director of the EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory.
“And most of those, as you might imagine, were from California, also Oregon and Washington where they were experiencing these types of (smoke) events,” he said.
Users on SmokeSense can report their health symptoms along with a tag to their location, so researchers can study the effect of wildfires on everyday citizens, Cascio said.
“One of our objectives was to get a much greater understanding of these kinds of minor symptoms that people have when they’re exposed to smoke,” Cascio said.
But the type of fire that occurred in Butte County in November was a new phenomenon, one that is increasingly becoming familiar to epidemiologists like Cascio.
“The nature of these megafires today is very different than in the past because of the number of communities that have now kind of migrated into the wildland-urban interface, so we have situations like what occurred in (Paradise),” he said.
“The emissions from structures that are going up in flames are going to be very different from what is occurring just with the natural vegetation. We don’t know as much as we need to know about that situation because it’s a relatively new phenomena on this scale,” Casico said.
That has started a rush of research on these types of events.
For example, in Missoula, Montana, scientists are studying how 100 volunteers from the town of Seeley Lake were affected by a wildfire in 2017 that exposed more than 1,600 people to nearly 30 times the level of safe particulate matter, as designated by the EPA. They said they have collected blood samples and will measure respiratory function in the volunteers for years to come, according to a 2018 article from the Nature International Journal of Science
Part of the problem is that previous studies have typically not distinguished the source of pollutants that people are breathing in a smoke event. Most sensors only measure the size of particles, not the components.
Other studies have found that wildfire smoke is composed of thousands of individual chemical compounds and composition typically depends on fuel type, temperature and wind conditions. The most common components include carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, acrolein (which the Centers for Disease Control has noted as potentially resulting in respiratory distress and delayed pulmonary edemas) and benzene, which causes harmful effects in bone marrow and may lead to the development of anemia.
Another growing field of research is the effect on vulnerable populations.
When it comes to the long-term effects of toxic pollution, it really varies by how each individual’s body responds. The chemistry of the toxins, the length of the exposure, the method by which it is ingested and the organs affected all play a role in determining the severity and symptoms of illness in each person exposed.
If a person’s DNA is exposed to aerosolized toxins, such as pregnant women and the fetuses inside them, it could even produce gene and chromosome mutations, leading to cancer and lifelong disorders in children who weren’t even born at the time of the offending smoke event.
Think of the children
Following the October 2017 Northern California wildfires (including the Tubbs Fire), scientists at UC Davis, less than 100 miles south of Butte County, set out to collect the placentas and cord blood of women who were pregnant during the event to determine what chemicals their developing children may have been exposed to. They have since expanded their study to include mothers affected by the smoke from the Camp Fire.
Another set of researchers at the same university are tracking the physical and mental health of people who were exposed to more than 250 fires that year. And at the California National Primate Research Center in Davis, researchers are studying the effects of the toxic smoke from 2018’s Mendocino Complex Fire on more than 2,000 animals at the center, including the lifelong development of some 500 baby rhesus macaques, who were exposed to toxic smoke levels over 10 days in July and August of 2008.
“Early exposure results in long-term changes,” said Lisa Miller in late 2018. Miller leads the respiratory diseases unit at the Primate Research Center. “What we don’t understand, particularly for pediatric populations, is what exactly changed.”
Researchers didn’t find any long-term effect to the adult monkeys, but animals that were infants at the time of the toxic smoke event wound up with smaller, stiffer lungs and weaker immune systems. Ten years later, chest scans of those same monkeys suggested they suffered from a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that causes lung scars and makes it difficult to take deep breaths.
Furthermore, a study released in 2012 suggests human birth weight can be detrimentally affected if a fetus is exposed to air pollution at various times during pregnancy. The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, used records from Southern California births between 2001 and 2005 and found evidence that the birth weight of babies who were exposed to smoke events in vitro was estimated to be an average of 6 grams smaller at birth than babies who were not, and nearly 10 grams lower when specifically exposed during their mother’s second trimester of pregnancy.
The end of the beginning
People have an innate, primal fear of the dark. When we can’t see what we know should be there, we fear everything that might be there.
But we are hardwired to feel safe in broad daylight. We rarely understand the effects of something infinitesimally small.
For many, once the air is clear, the danger is gone. But pollution is insidious, and as we advance into the 21st century, we cannot hide behind our ignorance any longer.
In December 2018, Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services, told Camp Fire survivors at an emergency meeting in Chico that they should prepare themselves for the long haul: Cleanup from the Camp Fire would be the largest debris removal in state history.
In Paradise, where the ash still lies on the ground, residents aren’t even allowed to live on their own properties while cleanup work is being done, on orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In the Camp Fire, the most toxic and deadly effects were not from the tangible products of the disaster — what’s hurting us is that which we cannot see. But unlike other disasters, Northern California stands a very good chance of the same catastrophe happening again and again.
This is the fourth installment in a five-part series. Next week, in the final chapter of “Inhaled,” we discuss the future of wildfires and public health, how climate change is driving the “next big one” and the dangerous implications of rebuilding in the Camp Fire’s footprint.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article misidentified the year in which baby monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center were exposed to toxic levels of smoke — it was in 2008, not in 2018.