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Study: Wildfire smoke erases air quality gains and leads to deaths in West

Smoke from California wildfires up to 200 miles away blankets a residential neighborhood in Sparks, Nev.
Scott Sonner
Smoke from California wildfires up to 200 miles away blankets a residential neighborhood in Sparks, Nev. A study released by the Desert Research Institute, July 13, 2021, suggests a correlation between exposure to the particulate matter in wildfire smoke and risk of contracting the coronavirus. Scientists found that test positivity rates increased last year in Washoe County when the region was blanketed with wildfire smoke from fires in neighboring California.

New research shows that emissions from wildfires are erasing gains in air quality in our region.

From 2000 to 2020, fine particulate pollution declined nationwide, “leading to a reduction of around 4,200 premature deaths per year,” according to a new paper.

But that air quality trend has reversed in the West since 2010 – due in large part to increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires fueled by climate change.

“In three to five years, if this trend continues, in the western U.S. air quality will be as bad as we had 25 years ago,” said Jun Wang, a coauthor and chair of the University of Iowa’s Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering.

And that troubling trend has come with steep health consequences. Wang and his colleagues estimate it has resulted in an additional 670 premature deaths annually in the West, while deaths and air quality stayed relatively stable in the East.

Smoke from the historic wildfires in Canada blanketed the East Coast for weeks this year. A UCLA climate scientist told Axios that if the study had included more recent years, air quality trends even outside the West may have “started to look a little bit different.”

The paper recommends that policymakers prioritize addressing climate change, as well as wildfire prevention and management. Wang also suggests that better smoke and air quality predictions could help people minimize exposure.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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