SANTA CRUZ, California – Wildfires emitting thick clouds of smoke and scorching vast swaths of the US West Coast have exposed millions of people to dangerous levels of pollution, leading to a sharp increase in emergency room visits. This poses a potentially deadly threat to thousands of elderly and frail people, according to the Associated Press’s analysis of air pollution data and interviews with doctors, health authorities and researchers.
As the AP analysis shows, smoke in concentrations that exceed government health risk guidelines and last for at least 24 hours has blanketed counties with a total population of more than 8 million in five states in recent weeks.
Wildfires in Colorado and Utah have forced many residents to flee their homes and caused damage that authorities have not yet been able to assess.
Two wildfires broke out in Utah on Saturday, according to Twitter posts from Utah Fire Info. A fire near the town of Orem led to the evacuation of about 10 residential buildings, according to CNN. The causes of both fires are under investigation, but it is believed that the second fire – in the Canyon of Fire – was caused by human activity.
Reports of burning forests in Utah come as fire brigades continue to fight the Calwood fire, which broke out Saturday afternoon north of Jamestown, Colorado and quickly spread tens of square kilometers, according to Gabi Burkircher, press Secretary of the Boulder County Emergency Management Department.
About 900 homes are in the evacuation zone, the Boulder Emergency Management Agency said on a tweet page.
The major cities in Oregon, which have been hit hard, last month experienced the highest levels of pollution ever recorded, with powerful winds amplifying flames that erupted in areas far from Portland but eventually moved closer to the city.
Human health complications began to crop up when areas were still shrouded in smoke, including hundreds of additional emergency room visits in Oregon, according to state health officials. “It was cruel to me,” said Barb Trout, a 64-year-old retiree living in south Portland in the Willamette Valley. The woman was twice rushed to the emergency room due to severe asthmatic reactions, which had never happened to her before.
Trout took refuge inside as soon as smoke enveloped the valley immediately after Labor Day, but a few days later she suffered an asthma attack, which caused her to choke and was admitted to intensive care. Two weeks later, when smoke from the California fires re-entered the valley, Barb developed an even more violent reaction, which she described as a near-death experience.
“This blow happened sooner and was stronger than the first attack. I couldn’t even breathe, ”she recalled.
In nearby Salem, pulmonologist Martin Johnson said that people with existing respiratory problems started coming to his hospital or calling his office almost immediately after smoke appeared in the area, and many of them could hardly breathe. Salem is located in Marion County, which experienced dangerous pollution for eight days, one of the worst rates in the US West in two decades, according to AP analysis.
Wildfires are common in the western states, but they have become more intense and dangerous as the changing climate leads to drought in the forests. Particles that are too small for the naked eye to make smoke from these fires hazardous and, if inhaled, damage the lungs and cause irreversible effects.
Most of Johnson’s patients are expected to recover, but he said some may have permanent loss of lung function. In addition, there are “hidden” victims who Johnson suspects have died of heart attacks or other problems caused by poor air quality, but whose cause of death will be attributed to something else.
“Many will not go to the hospital or die at home, or show up in hospice for other reasons, such as pneumonia or other complications,” Johnson said.
Based on previous studies of pollution-related deaths and the number of people affected by recent fires, researchers at Stanford University estimate that up to three thousand people over the age of 65 in California alone died prematurely from exposure to smoke within a month and a half, starting from August 1.
According to researchers at the University of Washington, hundreds more people could have died in Washington state in a few weeks due to the deterioration of air quality caused by fires. Results for both states have yet to be published in peer-reviewed journals. For Oregon, no such analysis has yet been performed.