California Burning

As California Struggles to Manage Wildfires, Health Problems Ensue

The Bay Area is left to deal with unhealthy levels of smoke in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave, and a global pandemic.

Andrew Huang

Andrew Huang

Andrew Huang

Andrew Huang

California’s worst fire season to date was started by a rare mid-August lightning storm. Since the freak weather incident, wildfires have raged across the state, fueled by an increasingly drier and hotter California. As a result, Berkeley and the Bay Area at large are left to deal with unhealthy levels of smoke in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave, and a global pandemic.

The two largest ongoing fires, the Santa Clara Unit (SCU) Lightning Complex and Sonoma-Lake Napa Unit (LNU) Lightning Complex have burned a combined area of over 700,000 acres of land, and are the second and third largest California wildfires, respectively. Fortunately, both fires are nearly ninety percent contained as of September 6. Even as these two major wildfires are being contained, more fires continue to spring up all over California.

It would be a mistake to think that containing the lightning complex fires would mean a speedy conclusion to the 2020 wildfire season, as new fires, seemingly unrelated to the lightning storm, have already started to pop up. Most notably, the Creek Fire has scorched through 45,000 acres of wilderness north of Shaver Lake in just two days. The Central California wildfire, which sits at zero percent containment, doesn’t bode well for the firefighting efforts in California.

“As physicians, we see tremendous problems associated with such poor air quality,” said Dr. David Levinson, an emergency room doctor who’s been working in the field for thirty years. The unhealthy air quality that has settled across the Bay Area has a huge impact on groups at risk in our community.

There may be long term effects of extended exposure to smoke, even on those who don’t necessarily have pre-existing respiratory conditions. Dr. Levinson calls this “a critical question.” Although Levinson is not a pulmonary doctor, he says that he suspects that if such intense wildfire seasons were to occur every year, long term exposure could result in chronic lung conditions in previously healthy individuals.

While polluted air is not good for anyone, it is important to note that it doesn’t affect us all equally. The City of Berkeley’s health status report shows that Black residents are hospitalized at a rate ten times higher than their white counterparts, and even as hospitalization rates go down overall, the racial disparity has only grown, going from a rate of five and a half in 2002 to ten in 2014. 

“What I’ve noticed about the smoke is that it’s forced me to change the way I live,” said Charlotte Dickson, a Berkeley resident with asthma. Dickson’s experience is far from unique, as roughly ten percent of the population in the Bay Area suffers from asthma, though that number varies by age group. Additionally, Alameda County has the third-highest asthma hospitalization rate in California. 

Unfortunately, wildfires are only getting larger and increasing in number, as man-made climate change has led to higher temperatures and drier land. These drastic effects are already reshaping California, where the wildfire season has been extended from its natural five months to seven months. It would be misleading to call this the “new normal,” because it is still likely that things will get worse.

Although climate change is a major component contributing to the severity of wildfires, the way the government manages and shapes the landscapes of California forests is also a factor.

As humans work to prevent wildfires as much as possible, years of dry tinder build up, meaning that when fires are started, they become massively destructive. However, this problem is being dealt with through controlled burns and mechanical removal of potential fuel. Such methods have been proven effective at reducing the severity of wildfires. If California increases these preventative efforts, there may be hope for a manageable wildfire season in years to come.

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