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The Climate Crisis Has Made Breathing Smoke Normal in Pacific Northwest

Summer in the Pacific Northwest has become the season of wildfires and unbreathable smoky air.

A home is overshadowed by towering smoke plumes as the Camp Fire races through the town of Paradise, California, on November 8, 2018.

You can’t accuse Grace Stahre of not working to turn climate change around. She’s fought the fossil fuel industry in court, on the streets, in kayaks and on social media. She has rallied to stop new coal terminals and helped pass a moratorium on new gas pipeline infrastructure. And she has lobbied for investment in renewable energy in Seattle, Washington, the city she calls home.

Stahre knew an increase in wildfires for the Pacific Northwest was predicted as a major consequence of climate change 20 years ago. What she didn’t know is how quickly wildfires would bring catastrophic climate change to her doorstep.

Summers used to be what drew people to live in this pocket of North America, with its alpine wilderness, high country trails with hidden lakes, rugged coastlines and beaches full of high-tide treasures.

That changed radically in 2015 when wildfires raged out of control in the eastern and northern part of Washington. Then in 2017, smoke from wildfires ripped through the entire state. In August of that year, Seattle earned the social media title “Smokezilla” after heavy smoke from British Columbia engulfed the area. In September 2017, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency across Washington due to wildfires.

In 2018, summer wildfires blanketed the state and region again, getting an early start from fires in eastern Washington, British Columbia, Oregon and California. A total of 1,874 fires were reported in Washington State, according to Janet Pearce, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. For several days, Seattle’s air quality was worse than Beijing’s. A third of August had unhealthy air quality, and half the month was thick with smoky haze. Only five days were reported “good” by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Smoke contains particulate matter — toxic chemicals from burning homes and structures. Fine particulates can remain in the atmosphere for up to two weeks depending on the weather. Large particulate matter can be coughed up. But particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter goes deep into the lungs. People are impacted differently depending on their immune system and sensitivity. For children with developing lungs, people who exercise hard outdoors, and those with respiratory illness, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a single exposure can be lethal.

For the last two summers, Stahre kept her children indoors when air quality was unhealthy. “Being able to breathe,” she says, “is one of the most precious aspects of life, and I want my children to be able to breathe their entire lives and take a full breath and not have to think that their parents were irresponsible for keeping them around wildfire smoke year after year.”

The Stahre family originally considered turning their home into a fortress against wildfire smoke, unhealthy air and extreme heat. But fully adapting one’s home for a changing climate comes at a steep price. Quotes for an air filtration system and heat pump ranged between $30,000 and $40,000. Instead the family is going to “wait and watch” and install a filter on the ducted part of their home, while researching standalone filtration options for other rooms.

What they’re doing is called “climate adaptation,” says Nate Matthews-Trigg, a health researcher with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Climate adaptation in the climate change and health field,” he says, “are ways people can change their behavior or their local environment to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

Climate Adaptation and Climate (In)Equity

Research shows creating clean air spaces is an adaptation people should take if they can, says Matthews-Trigg. It can be as simple as setting up a room in the house with an air purifier to reduce airborne particulate pollution, as the Stahre family is doing.

The majority of advice being promoted by health departments does not come with subsidies or financial aid and the measures proposed by local authorities — such as the 300 fans with filters that the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency plans to distribute to “highly impacted communities” who face chronic or economic barriers to mitigating the effects of unhealthy air quality on their lives — come nowhere close to protecting the most vulnerable residents from the chronic effects of unhealthy air.

Kurtis Robinson, a wild land firefighter and president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP in Eastern Washington, says if you look at “air quality dynamics,” the lack of access to resources is front and center for communities of color, impoverished and underserved communities: “They’re already dealing with a lack of affordable housing, the long-term effects of redlining and racial covenants.”

To address the disparity, the state needs to enact what Robinson calls “distinct action” to ensure resources are “readily available” for all. “Number 1 is moving the resources to make air conditioning, air filtration and retrofitting affordable across the board,” Robinson told Truthout. Climate adaptation with retrofits and clean air spaces for all becomes a “human right not a right of privilege,” he added.

At the same time, it’s a heavy lift to get the conversation to a point where legislatures and government embrace the reality of climate change and the need for equitable climate action. Inertia is baked into the system, says Robinson. In the case of catastrophic climate change, it will take an elevated sense of urgency to address the swiftly moving train of wildfires, drought, sea level rise and hurricanes.

Nature Conservancy scientist Phillip S. Levin told Truthout that Black, Latino and Native American communities nationwide face 60 percent greater vulnerability during wildfires compared to other communities. Levin says metal roofs are often recommended for those that live in areas prone to wildfires, because they can withstand fire. However, he acknowledges that these aren’t an option for many homeowners or those who rent, because “if we don’t consider the social, economic and political context in which fires occur, then we won’t necessarily allocate our resources to the most vulnerable.”

How Quickly Will Washington Adapt to the Wildfire Climate Crisis?

Most of the messaging about wildfire smoke from Washington’s Department of Health and local health partners urge individual behavior changes. “Get inside, close windows, make sure indoor air is clean, reduce physical activity.” Fliers show who is most sensitive: babies and children; people over age 65; people with health conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or emphysema; and pregnant people. Pamphlets advise going somewhere with clean air or air conditioning if your own home can’t provide it: a library, mall, community center or neighbor’s house. The Washington Smoke Blog, a collaboration between county and federal agencies and local tribes, shares information for Washington communities affected by wildfire smoke.

Julie Fox, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, admits “this puts a lot of burden on the public to think about how to change their daily activity and living space to reduce smoke exposure.” Asked if the department thinks summer wildfires are the new norm, Fox says, “What I’m hearing is we might not have reached the new norm yet. Things could get worse.”

As for masks, they don’t work for everyone, especially children and people with health conditions, say health professionals. The public has shown a lot of interest in specialized masks like N95 and N100, which are common in hospitals and certain workplace settings, says Meredith Li-Vollmer, a risk communication specialist with Public Health Seattle and King County. But there’s limited research on whether they work outside occupational settings. In fact, there’s some evidence that for certain health conditions, “masks can actually make it worse for people to breathe because you have to breathe through a filter,” says Li-Vollmer.

Family physician Kristen Knox, who has barricaded herself inside during the last two summer wildfire seasons because of her own asthma, says that what she hears from her patients is they’re fearful.

While children and those with respiratory illness are most at risk from smoke, Knox warns, “We’re all at risk.” Even “driving isn’t a safe thing to do unless you can recycle the air in the car and it’s air conditioned and filtered,” she adds. She recommends HEPA filters that can be attached to the dashboard or in the space between the seats.

Clean Air Facilities in City-Owned Buildings and Community Centers

The City of Seattle, for its part, recognizes wildfires as an emerging threat of climate change, and plans to retrofit all city buildings over time. Two community centers in the city’s international district and Rainier Beach neighborhoods, both home to low-income communities and communities of color, will be open as “cleaner air facilities” beginning in July. The city is also upgrading filtration in three buildings at the Seattle Center. Each building will have an air filtration system to reduce pollutants. Around 12 percent of Seattle’s residents have income below the poverty level. This means the three Seattle Center and community center buildings have the capacity to hold between 7.3 percent and 10.6 percent of the below-poverty population and 0.8 percent to 1.2 percent of the entire Seattle population. Of course, such stopgap measures are not enough when air becomes so unhealthy it becomes impossible to breathe for sensitive populations and challenging for everyone else. Julia Reed, a senior policy adviser in the mayor’s office, says if the smoke situation intensifies, the city will respond as it does to any other natural disaster, and may open city buildings as 24-hour shelters.

A Drought Emergency and Record-Breaking Heat

A drought emergency was declared for much of Washington in May by the governor. Low snowpack left many areas of the state with lower-than-normal water reserves. A hot, dry spring absorbed much of the snow that did accumulate. Seattle broke heat records in May with three days of 83-degree temperatures in a row, and again in June with several days of 90 degrees or more. The state capital, Olympia, reached 87 degrees, one degree higher than its previous 1989 record. Much of Eastern Washington saw temperatures in the mid-90s for several weeks in June.

Due to the efforts of Hilary Franz, the commissioner of public lands, the legislature allocated $50 million for fire suppression and prevention. Pearce said the amount would have been “unheard of in the past.” The money will be used to hire 30 more wild land firefighters in addition to 44 the state already has, and to combat forest health issues.

Climate models indicate wildfire smoke could increase 200 percent to 600 percent by mid-century in the West.

Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, remarked in 2018 that “climate change loads the dice against us by taking naturally occurring weather events and amplifying them.” In an interview with The Guardian, she said, “Wildfires in the western U.S. now burn nearly twice the area they would without climate change.”

Youth Climate Strikers at City Hall Underscore Urgency of Crisis

On Friday, June 21, youth climate strikers stood outside Seattle City Hall, chanting, “When the air we breathe is under attack, what we do? Stand up. Fight back!” They held signs that read, “Our Planet Is on Fire. Smoke Knows No Borders.”

Lydia Ringer, a youth organizer with the #FridaysforFuture climate change campaign, says the ongoing Friday strikes are necessary because “we need to act now. It’s our futures that are on the line.” Ringer wants the state to wean itself from fossil fuels within 10 years. Her mother, a first responder, was in Paradise, California, last summer helping the community cope after devastating wildfires. “She flies all over the country dealing with fires,” says Ringer, “and she’s only going to be dealing with them more and more as climate change intensifies.”

Large wildfires burn more than twice the area in the United States as they did in 1970, with the average wildfire season 78 days longer, according to a report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an independent nonprofit focused on solutions to climate change. Projections show “an average 1 degree Celsius temperature increase would increase the median burned area per year as much as 600 per cent in some types of forests,” the report concludes.

Climate change has been the focus of Governor Inslee’s presidential campaign. His request for a climate debate during the 2020 presidential campaign season was rejected by the Democratic National Committee. He recently released the fourth piece of his climate change policy, Freedom from Fossil Fuels. In it he outlined plans to transition the U.S. economy off fossil fuels, hold polluters accountable, and end corporate welfare.

Meanwhile, Stahre says she’ll continue to press the state and city for more rapid climate action. She believes Washington should declare a climate emergency, not just a drought emergency, and invest whatever it takes to get off of fossil fuels and reverse the decades of warming baked into the system. She knows another summer season of wildfires is not only likely for 2019, but for 2020 and beyond. By July 10, the state had already responded to 900 fires, according to Pearce with the state department of natural resources.

“This is life on the West Coast because we failed to act,” Stahre says, “and this will be our life for the foreseeable future unless we come up with some incredible technology that allows us to pinpoint those wildfires and nip ’em in the bud like we’ve never been able to before. But that’s not something I see on the horizon right now.”

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