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Wildfire Smoke Canceled Out Clean Air Gains In 2020, Report Shows

Chip Redmond / InciWeb
The Mullen Fire burning west of Laramie, Wyo., photographed on Sept. 30, 2020.

Gains in air quality had been hailed as a silver lining amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But according to new data out this week, those improvements in the U.S. were negated by last summer's wildfire smoke.

When pandemic lockdowns meant fewer cars on the road and planes in the sky, fine-particle pollution from the burning of fossil fuels dropped by 13%. That meant cleaner air. Then, 2020's historic wildfire season started.

"You look at August through December, and you see the biggest impact on air quality is wildfires," said Glory Dolphin Hammes with IQAir, which recently published its annual World Air Quality Report.

The report found that the average air pollution levels across the U.S. were actually higher in 2020 than in the previous two years.

"Heavy smoke emissions from wildfires caused Northern America to be the only region in this report to experience increased pollution levels in 2020," the report states.

In fact, during September 2020, the report notes, "U.S. cities constituted a remarkable 77 of 100 of the world's most polluted cities for PM2.5 by monthly average" - all in California, Oregon and Washington.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM 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.


Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.
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