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Wildfires In Western U.S. Could Affect Air Quality For Prolonged Period Of Time


In and around Redding, Calif., erratic winds and brutally hot temperatures are causing a deadly wildfire to race through the foothills and forest. At least two people have died, and the fire has burned dozens of structures. Bret Gouvea is the incident commander with Cal Fire.


BRET GOUVEA: We ask everyone to heed evacuation orders. This fire is extremely dangerous and moving with no regard for what's in its path.

CORNISH: The Carr fire is one of close to 100 major wildfires now burning across the western U.S. That includes the Ferguson fire near Yosemite. People living in the path of all this smoke are being told to prepare for prolonged periods where going outdoors for any length of time is hazardous, especially for children and older people. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: This week, when the Ferguson fire forced the closure of large portions of Yosemite National Park, including the Yosemite Valley and its famous Half Dome, the shutdown had less to do with the imminent threat of flames and more with the health and safety of park employees and others due to smoke pollution.

CHARLOTTE WILSON: We've been staying indoors most of the time because the air quality's been so bad. I have...

SIEGLER: Charlotte Wilson and her family evacuated to a Red Cross shelter in Mariposa, west of the park, where the air was a little bit better. Wilson has asthma, and her mother-in-law, who lives with her, uses an oxygen tank.

WILSON: It just snowballs. And you just do the best you can.

SIEGLER: Farther north, in Oregon, Ramona Quinn runs the environmental health program for Klamath County Public Health. On a normal day, she says, she'd be able to see Mount Shasta from her office 80 miles away. But lately, on some days the visibility has been less than a mile.

RAMONA QUINN: Currently we have fires to the north, fires to the west. We have fires to the southwest. We have had a few fires pop up in the east.

SIEGLER: Klamath Falls sits in a basin, and all that smoke and dirty air gets trapped. It's one of the worst spots in the country right now for wildfire smoke. Quinn is issuing unhealthy air advisories for people to stay indoors. They're also urging people to change their air filters and heating and cooling systems. Southern Oregon has seen a lot of retirees move in lately. And Quinn says it's usually not this hot, so air conditioning isn't too common.

QUINN: It's early. So far, we've had other seasons that usually don't start until late August, early September, and then we get smoky. This is the worst we've had this early.

SIEGLER: Scientists say wildfire seasons are now more than two months longer than historical averages. It used to be you might see bad air for a week. Now it's weeks, even months.

SARAH COEFIELD: It is the new not normal that we have wrought for ourselves.

SIEGLER: The new not normal. Sarah Coefield is an air quality specialist with the Missoula City and County Health Department in Montana.

COEFIELD: Because of where we are right now with climate change and with the last 100 years or so of forestry practices, we have really primed ourselves to have these very long wildfire seasons and therefore the longer smoke events.

SIEGLER: Prolonged smoke hit home for folks in Coefield's county last summer, where a small resort town was ordered to evacuate due to the smoke. For an unprecedented 35 straight days, there were hazardous air quality readings there. This summer, public health officials are trying to get out in front, distributing room air purifiers to daycares, gyms and schools. They're also urging residents to create their own safe spaces where windows are sealed off and air handling systems have clean filters. Coefield says the fires themselves and the destruction tend to get all the attention in the media, but...

COEFIELD: Very few of us will actually lose our homes to a fire. But most of us will experience the smoke.

SIEGLER: Coefield says western communities are in pretty good shape when it comes to preparing for fires. Now, she says, it's time to be more smoke-ready. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.


As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.