PARADISE, California, USA —First came the flames, a roaring fire fueled by 80 kph (50 mph) winds that consumed Kelsey Norton’s home and left 85 dead in his community. Then the smoke arrived, not only from the forest but also from some 14,000 homes and its burning contents, generating a thick column that completely engulfed portions of Northern California for weeks and left Norton gasping for shortness of breath.” I don’t want to have cancer in my 50s because I inhaled smoke in my 30s,” he said.
The numbers of deaths and property lost when a fire swept through the town of Paradise, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in November 2018, are well documented. However, the long-term impact of the intense smoke exposure suffered by survivors of the tragedy and the hundreds of thousands of people living in communities where the wind brought them smoke from fire is still unknown. Increasingly intense fires are consuming forests from the western United States to Australia, and raising concerns among residents and doctors about the long-term impacts of smoke exposure on health. The issue has far-reaching implications at a time when climate change is causing some regions of the planet to become drier and fire-prone, generating plumes of smoke that can travel thousands of miles and affect millions of people. Australia’s unprecedented fires set the latest example as they cover large cities with dangerous air pollution. The smoke from these flames, which began to burn in September, by this week had already spread across more than 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles) and floated along the Pacific Ocean to South America, according to the agency Weather and the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service.The fire has destroyed more than 2,000 homes and left at least 26 dead. Authorities ordered more evacuations in the neighbouring states of New South Wales and Victoria, after rising temperatures and erratic winds threatened Friday with whipped dozens of fires still burning out of control. Researchers and health authorities believe more people will get sick and many will die while the American West and other regions are prey to larger, more intense fires. An estimated 20,000 premature deaths occur each year in the United States due to chronic exposure to wildfire smoke. That number is expected to double by the end of the century, according to NASA-funded scientists, while tens of millions of people are exposed to massive “smoke waves” emanating from fires in western states. However, while these prognoses help illustrate the profound impacts of an increasingly warmer climate, they cannot predict which fires will be lethal and which individuals will develop lung problems or other diseases. Studies on wildfire firefighters provide a better understanding of the risks of smoke inhalation. They have shown significantly higher rates of lung cancer and death from heart disease, said Michael Kleinman, who researches the health effects of air pollution and is a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California,Irvine campus.Firefighters receive much higher and frequent doses of smoke, but Kleinman said a proportional increase in diseases can be expected among the general public exposed to wildfire smoke in California and other regions of the western United States.” It’s safe to say there will probably be more long-term effects,” Kleinman said. “Especially if these events occurred over a longer period of time or more repeatedly, there will be cumulative damage to the lung and heart that will eventually lead to a chronic illness.”
As she fled with her boyfriend ahead of the fire that destroyed Paradise on the morning of November 8, 2018, Norton said the smoke was so thick “it seemed midnight.”
A few days later, he returned to work at a hospital in Chico, about 24 kilometers (15 miles) from Paradise. But the smoke from the burning fire had gone into the facility. There weren’t enough masks for everyone, so Norton said he walked several days without one. At first he only felt that he was whistling in his breathing, but two weeks later he suffered a respiratory infection accompanied by fever and severe nasal congestion. When he finally healed, he suffered another, and then another: eight or nine infections last year.” I just want to break this cycle of disease,” he said. Norton says he’s never smoked, or his parents, and he’s never had any breathing problems before the fire. He missed work so much that a supervisor gave him a warning. The pneumologist who initially treated her, Dinesh Verma, said she sees a “direct correlation” between Norton’s exposure to smoke and her subsequent health problems.” Definitely the logical explanation would be that intense smoke, mainly exposure to chemicals, did damage the airways to a degree that is now more susceptible” to infections, he said.