Environment & Science

Study: California's wildfire season and air quality to get worse

A hillside erupts in flame as a raging wildfire fire burns in Placerita Canyon in Santa Clarita, Calif., Monday, July 25, 2016.
A hillside erupts in flame as a raging wildfire fire burns in Placerita Canyon in Santa Clarita, Calif., Monday, July 25, 2016.
Nick Ut/AP

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The Blue Cut Fire continued to burn out of control in San Bernardino County on Wednesday. It’s the latest in a string of wildfire that have charred more than 170 square miles so far this year in California.

A new study out this week suggest we better get used to all the smoke and ash from wildfires. 

That's because the amount of air pollution from wildfires in the Western U.S. is expected to rise as more fires ignite because of climate change. Those are the findings from researchers at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, published in the journal Climatic Change.

"Climate change is going to impact the frequency of wildfires," said Michelle Bell, one of the authors of the paper.

Our warming climate and earlier snow melts have been associated with more wildfires. And the drier, hotter climate that the western U.S. has been experiencing means more fires, she explained, "They're going to burn hotter. They're going to start earlier in the year. They're going to emit more air pollution," Bell said.

By the year 2050, the researchers anticipate a large increase in the number of days people in the West will experience increased amounts of pollution because of wildfires. However, the pollution's not just the smoke and soot that people associate with fires. The researchers focused on pollution that's less than 1/30th the size of a human hair, or particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). The particles are a common byproduct of wildfires, and they can have serious health effects.

"The larger particles you feel. You can feel the irritation in your lugs. But the very very tiny particles can actually get very deep in your lungs, and you won't feel anything, and that's one of the dangers with them," said Dr. Afif El-Hassan with the American Lung Association in California.

"A chemical that's that tiny that can get past the lungs defenses and gets into the bloodstream is no longer a threat just to the lungs. It all of the sudden becomes a poison that can do things to other parts of the body," he said. "And we think some of these tiny little particulates, like the ones that come from diesel can actually cause heart disease and even cause cancer because it's made it into the bloodstream, and now it's affecting the rest of the body."

"Forest fires is one of those types of air pollution sources that we may not think of so much when we think of human health," Bell said. "And now that we have climate change, which is going to exacerbate this air pollution source, this is another way in which climate change could impact our human health. And in this case, for the worse."

The amount of time that the pollution spends in the air and where it spreads is dependent on a number of factors, including humidity levels and air currents. But, Bell explained, even if a fire's thousands of miles away, it can still have an impact depending on weather conditions.

After five years of drought conditions, the number of wildfires this year have surpassed the number of fires that we had by the same time last year, but things could get worse. One reason is that there are 66 million dead trees in Southern Sierra Nevada which have become a major fire concern for the state of California.