California’s 2020 smoke storm was horrific. What did the state learn?
For weeks in 2020, toxic plumes of wildfire smoke painted Californias skies red and polluted the usually pristine air around the San Francisco Bay. The smoke was so dense that it blocked out the sun. A dark orange hue hung over everything, and particles from hundreds of miles away stung peoples eyes and throats for weeks. It was a terrifying turning point. Californians are used to navigating wildfire smoke every summer and fall. But in recent years, climate change has made fires more intense, frequent and long-lasting, and their smoke waves have become as frightening as the flames themselves. For many, 2020 was the wake-up call. That year, nearly 9,900 fires torched 4.3 million acres the worst in Californias history. The fires killed more than 30 people directly. But a Stanford study concluded that thousands more died from smoke exposure, calling the excess death toll staggering. Largely because of unusual lightning storms, a siege of fires burned for nearly four months in northern California, smothering 95 percent of the entire state with toxic particles for weeks. It really hit home, said Amy MacPherson, a resident of Sacramento who works for the California Air Resources Board. The gravity of it, the enormity of it. ... A lot of people underestimate the damage smoke can do, how morally exhausting it can be. Like the smoke that shrouded the eastern United States this week, the 2020 fires prompted many Californians to change how they live investing, if they could, in better masks, tighter windows and air-purification machines. While that weeks-long wave directed more attention on hazardous air, it hasnt resulted in systematic changes to help Californians weather future smoke events, said Michael Wara, the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. This is a very new problem that has gotten bad very fast, and government moves slowly, Wara said. We need to have the political will to address indoor air quality and set new standards, and to do that you need to say that we need high-quality housing for everyone. That is a huge challenge. Changing laws and updating regulations on what clean air actually means, especially indoors, is a lift that also requires substantial amounts of money. Given that the state is now in a deficit, it will be much harder to justify allocating spending to protecting people from smoke when we still need to fight the fires that cause them. Up until the last few years, public knowledge about particulate pollution was minimal and it was mostly up to individuals to figure out if they were sensitive to dangerous conditions. It became apparent, a report found, that many people did not have the education, resources or ability to get out of smoky air. The Environmental Protection Agency has also been reactive in its efforts to get ahead of preventing wildfire smoke waves and helping at-risk communities understand and prepare for them, Wara said. After 2020, state and local officials said they have expanded how they addressed smoke and its impacts, especially since 3.7 million people in California do not have air conditioning, the highest in the country. The Air Resources Board and some air management districts created new tools and resources, such as informational graphics about what air quality scores actually mean, an updated Spoke Spotter mobile app so people can get alerts for their counties, and videos on how to create a clean airspace in your home and make an emergency DIY filter . The Bay Area Air Quality Management District created a program to give portable air purifiers to asthmatic residents with lower incomes. And the Air Resources Board accelerated a 2019 pilot initiative that funds clean air centers where people can go when they need a place to just breathe. Its a start, but only 50 out of 100 in the San Joaquin Valley one of the nations most polluted regions are open. None have come online in the southern part of the state. California is also funding more research into how smoky, hazardous air upends lives. The Air Resources Board launched a three-year study to see what being repeatedly exposed to these smoke waves does to peoples mental health, as well as their hearts and lungs, and preterm births. While the legislative response has been modest, several new statutes have updated potential safeguards. The California Department of Public Health and Sacramento, which has some of the worst air quality in the nation, had to create air quality health and wildfire smoke air pollution emergency plans, respectively. Health and safety officials also updated emergency regulations pertaining to outdoor workers, requiring employers to supply N95 masks when the Air Quality Index goes above 150. When it exceeds 550, the rule requires employers to get a medical clearance to continue the job. These steps are important, but Wara said there needs to be major updates to safeguard the most vulnerable, such as children and seniors. The state does not have a program to address smoke intrusion in schools, many of which are decades old. Seniors are often trapped inside apartments and nursing homes. For them, theres generally been a gap in ensuring their conditions are safe, Wara said. It is one thing to have the information and it is another thing to be able to do something about it, he said. Health authorities, he added, are basically telling you to stay inside, but many people dont live in homes they can effectively seal from the environment. We dont really focus on indoor air quality issues. Government investigators have also found that dedicated air quality agencies could do more to address the problem. In a 2021 report, the California Legislative Analysts Office said the state could better coordinate its various agencies response to wildland fire smoke and provide more targeted assistance to vulnerable individuals. Potential fixes, as they often do, come down to money and which climate change priorities should get it. Because of the states fiscal problems, officials have put on hold an effort to open a network of community resilience centers to help people get out of smoke and heat. The state has been slow to reach its aggressive goals to reduce fire fuels due to staffing shortages, delays, and a lack of legislative guidance and oversight. Up until recently, funds for resource management thinning forests and prescribed burns have made up a very small portion of Cal Fires budget, the Government Accountability Office pointed out. The need is even greater at the national level. The GAO, which investigates federal agencies, found that the Environmental Protection Agencys efforts to help communities prepare for and respond to wildfire smoke episodes have been ad hoc ... with no program or staff solely dedicated this work. The EPA has also been lacking in coordinating prescribed burn strategies, the report found. The EPA needs to be more proactive and better coordinate with other agencies to reduce smoke, specifically by focusing on prescribed burns, which help clear the land of fire fuel that makes blazes more intense. A confounding issue, though, is that the federal governments Clean Air Act stymies that ability. The 1970 law has not been significantly amended since the 1990s, when wildfires were not as frequent or sweeping as they are now. Thus the EPA does not count wildfire smoke incidents as part of a states air quality data, since they are considered exceptional and natural events that, under the law, are not caused by humans. Prescribed burns, on the other hand, are human-caused, which makes it much harder for western states to carry them out. The California Air Resources Board said it is working to better coordinate with other agencies and pool resources to tackle wildfire smoke. After Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) created a task force and action plan in August 2020, the Air Resources Board ramped up its efforts to conduct more prescribed burns as a smoke mitigation strategy. The Air Resources Board now helps Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service plan its schedule to make sure crews are burning as much as possible, said MacPherson, with the California Air Resources Board. But there is only so much states can do, Wara said. At the federal level, many officials still see wildfire smoke itself as an act of God and not something we can control, he added. We have to fundamentally change how we think about and tackle air quality. Latest news: Shifting wildfire smoke is lingering on the East Coast as Canada has deployed troops to help fight the blaze. Millions of Americans face a relentless summer of Canadian wildfire smoke that wont end anytime soon. Its already Canadas worst fire season in modern history , but why are the wildfires getting worse ? Heres what we know about the wildfires . Air quality and your health: Breathing in wildfire smoke is bad for your health . The EPA uses a color-coded system to measure air quality heres what Code Red, Code Purple and more mean . Learn how to protect yourself including which air filters and air purifiers to choose for your home. Environmental impact: Wildfires send greenhouse gases into the air, but Canada doesnt count some of them as part of its official emissions contributions, a Post report found .