Smoky skies early could save Californians from choking later, fire experts say

Sacramento is more than a hundred miles from the most destructive wildfires that have burned across California this year. But the city’s residents have still been directly affected by what is shaping up to be another historic fire season.

This summer, Sacramento “had a record-breaking streak of 15 consecutive ‘spare the air’ days, when our air quality was so poor that our air district encouraged people to stay inside,” Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui noted at a House hearing Thursday. And “the smothering impacts of wildfire smoke” had a lot to do with it, Matsui said.

The smoke from the west’s ever-larger wildfires is a major health hazard, air quality and forestry experts told Matsui and other members of Congress at the hearing. “The increase in air pollution due to wildfires is undermining years of progress reducing air pollution from power plants, industrial facilities, and vehicles,” National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara testified.

But O’Mara and other witnesses told lawmakers that California and other western states may ultimately have to put up with a small amount of smoke to help prevent large-scale fires and the lung-clogging debris that come with them.

Controlled burns — fires that are intentionally set to clear the forests of overgrown brush and dead trees — are an important tool for lessening the risk of catastrophic wildfires, the experts agreed. Forests managed through these so-called “prescribed fires” tend to ”burn with less intensity … and often produce less smoke,” Sonya Germann, a forester with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said in her prepared testimony.

Oregon state Senator Herman Baertschiger, Jr., a longtime wildland firefighting trainer, also noted that “smoke from controlled burns is far less impactful to my constituents than these large fires during the summer months.”

They agreed that western states should consider expanding controlled burns in the months ahead of fire season, which typically runs from late summer to late fall. That would mean Sacramento and other cities in the Central Valley, where air gets trapped between mountain ranges, could see more smoke in the spring.

But as Germann pointed out, over the past 11 years in Montana, “there have been only 4 instances when prescribed fire exceeded air quality standards for particulate matter, compared to the 579 instances for wildfire.” Particulate matter is defined as particles and liquid dispersed in the air, primarily from dust, vehicle pollution and burning wood and can harm lungs, increase the risk of respiratory complications and cause cardiovascular disease.

With fires burning to the north, west and south of Sacramento, the summer of 2018 has been particularly bad for the the Central Valley’s air quality. Twenty-one out of 30 days this August exceeded national air quality standards for fine particulate matter in the Sacramento Valley, according to data from the California Air Resources Board. And thus far in September, just three out of 12 days have not exceeded those standards.

Neighboring areas are also suffering. Republican Rep. Greg Walden spoke Thursday of how much his southern Oregon district is struggling with bad air quality as a result of fires in the state as well as those that have burned in Shasta County. “Smoke from these wildfires is literally choking people to death,” Walden said. The town of Medford, Oregon, just across the border from California, has “experienced the worst run of unhealthy air quality since the EPA began making such determinations in 2000,” he added.

In Idaho, “wildfires are the single largest air pollution source,” Mary Anderson, of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Division, testified. That includes smoke from fires burning in California and Oregon, which winds have blown into the state. In fact, smoke from California’s wildfires has been detected as far away as Washington, D.C., transmitted by high-altitude winds.

In many cases, moreover, “the air quality indoors is just as bad or worse than the air quality outside,” Anderson told members of Congress. So telling people “to remain indoors and limit exposure is no longer sufficient.”

But Anderson warned that “prescribed fire also causes smoke that needs to be managed.” Air quality and forestry agencies must coordinate and monitor the weather to make burn decisions that “truly lessen smoke impacts and not simply move smoke from one time of year to another,” she said.

That is one of the things that has limited the use of controlled burns in the past. Another is a lack of money and capacity within the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry agencies. “Most of the problem here is actually funding and collaboration,” O’Mara said.

He agreed with Walden, however, that there are things government officials can do to to ensure that, when it comes to controlled burns, “air quality standards aren’t overly prohibitive” and “we’re accounting for the impacts of prescribed burns in a way that’s actually rational.”

“Especially,” O’Mara continued, “if the man-made (fires) are going to save us 90 or 100 percent of emissions as compared to the alternative.”

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