When a yellowish haze of toxic smoke blanketed the sky during the deadly Camp Fire in Northern California this past November, John Balmes, a medical professor, was alarmed to find a man in a paper mask jogging in Sacramento.
“Now that’s misuse,” said Balmes, who is an expert on the respiratory effects of air pollutants at the University of California in both Berkeley and San Francisco.
While experts recommend the simple over-the-counter masks, known as N95s, to help filter out particles of smoke if people have no choice but to step outdoors, they are nowhere close to a good long-term solution for a wildfire problem that’s only likely to get worse.
“It’s the false sense of security that they get from wearing masks that is worrisome,” Balmes told Bloomberg Environment.
Experts say the public should use N95s only as a last resort if they can’t stay inside with the windows shut and the air conditioning running. That’s because the masks are good at protecting people against fine airborne particle pollution, but not against the toxics released from the burning of homes, cars, and factories.
Climate Change Adds to Urgency
State and local officials, employers, and the public are coming to grips with the fact that wildfires—and their attendant toxic smoke—need deeper solutions, as climate change is causing fires out West to erupt earlier in spring and last later into the winter, a conclusion also reached in the latest scientific assessment of U.S. climate change effects.
In fact, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a state of emergency on March 22 ahead of the fire season to speed up forest management projects that can help prevent fires from spreading.
Companies do appear concerned about how best to respond to wildfire smoke, according to Joshua Henderson, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in San Francisco who represents employers and focuses on labor and safety issues.
“Every time there is [a wildfire] we have clients or other employers asking questions about what they can do,” Henderson told Bloomberg Environment.
The answer, he said, typically can be found in guidelines issued by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health for hazardous air pollutants. These range from making changes to offices such as installing air filters, and allowing employees to change their work schedules to take more breaks or work from home, to the use of protective masks like N95, he added.
Since there aren’t any hazardous air quality standards on the books for emergency wildfire workers in California, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board is now planning to ask the state’s OSHA to develop emergency regulations by July, and then put together a more concrete regulation in the future.
Toxic Chemicals Added to Mix
Along with huge damage to property, flames scorch not just the wood in forests, but the plastic, metal, and household cleaners in nearby homes, and automobiles, stores, and factories, releasing tons of air pollution and toxic emissions of chemicals like hydrogen cyanide, dioxins, and benzene.
After the wildfires last November, air quality levels across Northern California and much of Central California in places exceeded by as much as six times the level deemed healthy by the Environmental Protection Agency for people with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions, children, and older people.
In the San Francisco Bay area, wildfire smoke has been responsible for 16 of the top 20 days since 1999 when fine airborne particle pollution exceeded safe levels, Jack Broadbent, chief executive officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said at a gathering of air quality and public health officials in early February.
How to Minimize Exposure?
Federal and state air quality and public health officials agreed on some short-term solutions to minimize exposure to wildfire smoke.
“The first message is avoid OR minimize the time spent outdoors,” Alberto Ayala, executive director for Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, told Bloomberg Environment in an email. The best solution, he said, is to stay in a room equipped with a portable high efficiency particulate air filter, or with air conditioning or heating systems that recirculate air.
Alternatives are community or senior centers, schools, and libraries that have been retrofitted with these specially designed filters.
The N95 masks, which fit snugly over the nose and mouth, can be an imperfect solution if staying at home is not an option.
But employees may not always have good options.
Base Stayed Open
For example, while the Woolsey Fire in November engulfed California’s Ventura County in flames and smoke, Point Mugu, the U.S Naval base in Ventura County, continued to operate. It was closed for only one day that month because of its proximity to the fires, not because of smoke, Hasan Jafar, who retired as the base’s air quality manager at the end of 2018, told Bloomberg Environment.
While air quality was not affected because of wind direction last year, the office remained open even when air quality was poor in 2017, he said.
Last year, employees at the Silicon-Valley based i2c Inc., were allowed to take the day off when air quality deteriorated due to the Camp Fire, according to Amir Wain, the chief executive officer of the 800-employee global company.
“We allow people to work from home several days a week,” said Wain, whose company’s secure online platform allows banks to offer credit cards and mobile payment products to customers. “Many exercised this option during the times when air quality was poor.”
But Wain has no immediate plans to install high-efficiency clean air filters in this office to ward of toxic smoke, because he sees the fires as a transient issue.
California, Oregon, and other neighboring states have developed plans to manage their forests by thinning out the underbrush and dry logs that fuel these fires. That means more planned burns, or fires deliberately set to get rid of the underbrush.
California is planning to conduct more planned burns this year to get a head start before the wildfire season, Melanie Turner, spokeswoman for the California Air Resources Board, told Bloomberg Environment.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a $1 billion plan in place that targets 90,000 acres to thin forests, clear roadways, and create fire breaks near communities to slow down the path of fast-moving wildfires, according to spokesman Scott McLean.
“There are about 147 million dead trees in California, of which about 1.5 million already have been removed through prescribed burns,” McLean said.
While the exercise of clearing forest can be useful by restoring the forest ecology, it can also be a problem if wind speed and direction don’t cooperate, leaving residential areas exposed.
That has prompted some local governments to follow the example of British Columbia in Canada, which restricted development near heavily forested areas in order to reduce the risk of spreading fires.
“What we need is a paradigm shift in thinking,” said Brian Nowicki, Center for Biological Diversity’s California climate policy director. “It is not enough to address wildfires by just thinning forests. We need to address how to protect communities.”
—With assistance from Fatima Hussein.
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