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Q&A: Climate Change, Wildfires And The Pacific Northwest

When we think about climate change, we often think about the health of the entire planet. But it could also bring specific health risks to people in the Pacific Northwest.

That issue was raised just last week by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

“Climate change caused by carbon pollution is one of the most significant public health threats of our time,” she said when speaking to the National Press Club about the agency’s plan for regulations that would restrict carbon emissions from new power plants.

EarthFix reporter Katie Campbell joined OPB’s Geoff Norcross to talk about one of those health threats

Geoff Norcross: Katie, you’ve been researching the health impacts of wildfire smoke. We’re now at the tail end of the wildfire season. What’s this year been like?

Wildfire smoke hovered over the Rogue River Canyon earlier this year.

Wildfire smoke hovered over the Rogue River Canyon earlier this year.

David Nogueras/OPB

Katie Campbell: In some ways this has been a pretty moderate year for wildfires across the country. The number of fires and the acreage burned is well below the ten-year average. In fact, in the last decade there’s only been one year that’s had fewer fires than this year. But still, here in the Northwest more than 4,000 wildfires burned almost a million acres. A majority of those fires took place in Oregon and Idaho.

GN: What did that mean to the air quality in those areas?

KC: Communities in Central Idaho and Southern Oregon were hit particularly hard. Smoke pollution reached levels that the EPA considers hazardous. And the smoky air hung over communities in Southern Oregon for more than a week.

GN: What makes wildfire smoke hazardous to people’s health?

KC: Wildfire smoke is made up of particles that really, really tiny — they’re one 30th of the width of a human hair. They’re so small they can travel deep into the lungs and even cross over into the bloodstream. Inhaling those fine particles isn’t good for anyone, not even healthy people. And for some people, breathing in wildfire smoke can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and even strokes.

GN: How did people cope with the heavy amounts of smoke in Southern Oregon this summer?

KC: My EarthFix colleague Amelia Templeton is based in Medford, Oregon and she talked to people there who said it felt like they just couldn’t escape the smoke — even if they stayed indoors. Amelia also interviewed the ER director at a hospital in Grants Pass. His name is Eric Loeliger and he reported a 15 to 20 percent increase in people admitted with breathing problems.

Here’s how he described the situation back in August.

Eric Loeliger: We’re seeing everything from people who are essentially worried and well, to people that are in severe respiratory distress, respiratory failure, and requiring immediate intubation and mechanical ventilation.

GN: So how will climate change make things worse?

KC: Think of every fire season as a roll of the dice. You never know what it will be like from year to year. This season we ended up with a comparatively low number of fires. But changes in the climate are essentially loading the dice so that more often we’ll end up with longer, smokier fire seasons with bigger fires.

In our reporting, we also spoke with a University of Idaho climatologist. His name is John Abatzoglou. And he explained that in the coming decades we can expect to experience summers that are overall warmer and drier.

John Abatzoglou: That’s the right climate recipe for large regional fire years. So under a changing climate, the likelihood of seeing conditions conducive to these large regional fire years those are going to increase dramatically.

GN: What’s the latest from the scientific community on this issue?

KC: A recent Harvard University study found that by 2050, the fire season across the West is projected to be up to a month longer. And fires are expected to be up to twice as smoky. So I guess what that means is that people in the western half of the country should probably start thinking about how to prepare for that. And the only sure-fire way to protect yourself is to get away from the smoke.

GN: Thanks Katie.