Smoke reduced life expectancy across Washington

Most of Washington State’s hazardous air pollution comes from wildfire smoke, burdening already over-burdened populations in the state and lowering the average number of years people in those communities are expected to live.

A new report from the state’s Department of Ecology looked into air pollution across Washington and found that the largest contributor to air pollution in over-burdened communities was from wildfire smoke. The DOE is working to improve air quality in 16 places, representing numerous communities, neighborhoods, and towns across Washington that are overburdened and highly impacted by criteria air pollution.

Targeted areas in Washington

The federal Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for six common air pollutants. The DOE monitors these pollutants and acts if levels become unhealthy. These  pollutants are:

During the cold season, the largest contributor to air pollution was usually smoke from wood-burning stoves or furnaces.

Residents of the studied overburdened communities, on average, live 2.4 years shorter lives than the state average and also have higher numbers of deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Satellite photo, Bolt Creek (on the north) and Cedar Creek fires Sept. 10, 2022. Processed by Pierre Markuse.
Satellite photo, Bolt Creek (north) and Cedar Creek fires Sept. 2022. Processed by Pierre Markuse.

“Long-term exposure to air pollution may contribute to development of disease — for example, asthma development in children or chronic cardiovascular conditions in adults,” the department’s report says. “Further, short-term exposure to air pollution is associated with exacerbations in existing conditions such as asthma or COPD.”

The overburdened communities included:

        • Spokane and Spokane Valley
        • Tri-Cities to Wallula
        • East Yakima
        • Lower Yakima Valley
        • Moxee Valley
        • George and West Grant County
        • Mattawa
        • Ellensburg
        • Wenatchee and East Wenatchee
        • Everett
        • North Seattle and Shoreline
        • South Seattle
        • South King County
        • Northeast Puyallup
        • South and East Tacoma
        • Vancouver

The report also warns that life expectancies in these communities may drop even further as the frequency of wildfire smoke events has been rising. The worry is in line with USDA research that points to wildfire seasons in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho that are projected to last longer with increased wildfire frequency, size, and total acres burned as a result of climate change.

“In Northwest forests, a warming climate coupled with more frequent wildfires will lead to a shift away from shade-tolerant, thin-barked, or fire-intolerant species such as western hemlock, subalpine fir, and Engelmann spruce,” the report said. “With warmer and drier conditions and more frequent disturbance, some locations will likely shift from forest to shrubland or grassland.”

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8 thoughts on “Smoke reduced life expectancy across Washington”

  1. In my 45 years of fighting wildfires and working on Rx burns I think I breathed more smoke on Rx burns than on wildfires.

    About 20 years ago I had pneumonia. My doctor X-rayed my lungs then asked me if I had ever been a smoker because the bottom half of my lungs looked just like a smoker’s lungs. My answer was that I only smoked on fires back when the Forest Service gave us free cigarettes and cigars.

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  2. Our death toll among IHC crews would be astronomical, if this was as acute as described here. Is there an effect, yes. But there is too much of a blinded focus on the smoke without much about the health of the deceased, or their behaviors and lifestyles. Not buying it. So Cal would be a wasteland.

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    1. Hi Tom! I can’t speak to potential actions by Washington state officials, I can say there is research that shows that high-intensity wildfire smoke is much more toxic than that from prescribed burns.

      “We show that fire severity, geologic substrate, and ecosystem type influence landscape-scale production of hexavalent chromium in particulates during recent wildfires.”: https://wildfiretoday.com/2023/12/12/wildfire-smoke-toxicity-worsened-by-heavy-metals-in-soil-flame-intensity/

      Additionally, prescribed burns usually only burn vegetation, compared to wildfires in urban area that can burn tire piles and/or tool sheds that release much more toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.

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      1. You are correct on every point. But you might check on this story in a few months and see if state air quality regulators are encouraging the use of prescribed fire, or clamping down on it since they can’t clamp down on wildfire smoke. My experience is that especially following active wildfire years, prescribed fires are discouraged, regardless of the merits they may have in mitigating future wildfires and associated smoke.

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        1. Hi Tom, in your experience, which states and their air quality regulators have discouraged RxFire and how did they do that? I’d be VERY intereested in following up on this. I worked on a BLM project some time ago which was a blue-ribbon burn, 5 stars for wildlife and wildlife habitat, and the state guys kept throwing water on it. Which states in which years are you referring to?

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          1. I worked in California in the 1990s with the San Joaquin Valley Air District. A big issue was ozone, and their thought that smoke led to higher ozone readings, which might be true if the source was large and intense wildfires. For example, we had one instance in which a rx fire was not permitted because ozone readings in Bakersfield were high, and somehow the smoke from a small rx fire hundreds of miles away was going to make it worse. But really. air districts aside, the typical response, including by land managers, to doing rx fires in the fall after a summer of wildfires was that the public should be given a break from breathing more smoke. So, the rx fire is not done, fuels accumulate further, and we continue the standard business practice of calling for more prescribed fire (but just not this year).

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What do you think?