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.”

Nearly double the usual winter wildfires, triple the acreage burned in northern India

India’s Forest Service has reported 1,006 wildfire alerts to the northern state of Uttarakhand since November 1, according to the Times of India. That number is up from the 556 wildfire alerts the service reported during the same time last year.

The increase is part of a worrying and destructive cycle that has escalated in the area for the past six years. Uttarakhand has had triple the acres burned by wildfires since 2017, worsened by its first-ever repeated occurrence of winter wildfires, or wildfires outside of the state’s usual fire season of February 15 to June 15.

“The unusual shift in the fire season may be linked to different reasons including climate change, the lockdown, or too much human intervention in the forests,” Arti Chaudhary, the head of Silviculture and Forest Resource Management Division at the Forest Research Institute, told the Times. “A five-year study across 15 states of the country that witness forest fires, including Uttarakhand, has been initiated to thoroughly understand the actual reasons behind this shift, as it has been recorded all over the country.”

The winter wildfires also contributed to the state’s above-average wildfire carbon emissions in 2021. Uttarakhand’s wildfires emitted an estimated 0.2 megatonnes of carbon in March 2021 alone, breaking a record set in 2003, according to Copernicus Climate Change Service scientist Mark Parrington.

Northern India’s skies took on a hazy hue in November caused in part by the unusual wildfire shift, NASA satellites show. The haze is reportedly a seasonal occurrence caused by urban pollution entering the atmosphere when seasonal weather patterns trap air pollution near the ground, but smoke from the unseasonal wildfires made the air quality even worse.

“The World Health Organization considers 15 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to be a safe limit,” said NASA. “But ground-based air quality monitors routinely measured levels that exceeded 300 and, at times, 500 micrograms per cubic meter in November.”

northern India, NASA image
Northern India, NASA image

Oregon wineries suing PacifiCorp for 2020 wildfires

After a Lane County Circuit Court judge in Oregon denied PacifiCorp’s motion to dismiss the negligence claims back in December, KOIN-TV reports that a Willamette Valley winery is wanting accountability from utility companies after the devastating 2020 Labor Day fires.

Brigadoon Vineyards filed in June 2023 with negligence charges against Pacific Power — and its parent company PacifiCorp. KGW-TV reported last week that several vineyards in the Pacific Northwest have sued the utility company, claiming that the utility company’s  powerlines started some of the 2020 Labor Day fires, which tainted grape crops at numerous wineries with smoke wafting over Northwest vineyards during and after the 2020 firestorm.

“It boggles the mind that they had an opportunity to turn off the power and they didn’t do it.”

Brigadoon argues in court that the Labor Day fires — the Santiam, Echo Mountain, Archie Creek Complex, 242, and South Obenchain  fires in western Oregon in 2020 — resulted from PacifiCorp’s electrical system failures and the utility’s decisons to not de-energize its powerlines — caused smoke to taint the winery’s grapes, which crippled wine production and the winery’s sales.  Multiple lawsuits filed by Willamette Valley vineyards and wineries against PacifiCorp, the parent company of electric utility Pacific Power, will proceed in court after several recent rulings. Attorneys for the winemakers plan to get other affected  businesses on board with the legal action.

Elk Cove Vineyards, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Brigadoon Winery thus far are just three of the affected winemakers to sue PacifiCorp individually. The complaints were filed separately but are all substantively similar  — they each allege that PacifiCorp equipment failures ignited several of the Labor Day fires of 2020, and that the smoke from those fires then damaged grapes, the grape harvest, and wine sales for the wineries. Complainants are seeking almost  $16 million in damages.

Oregon vineyards

KOBI5 recently reported that Elk Cove Vineyards, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Brigadoon Winery are just three of the winemakers to sue PacifiCorp so far, alleging that the power company’s lines, which they chose to not de-energize, started some of the 2020 fires that tainted or ruined the vineyards’ grape crops with heavy and longterm smoke.

Lawsuits from the 2020 Labor Day weekend fires have already cost PacifiCorp more than $73 million. Brigadoon Vineyards says PacifiCorp decided to not shut off power despite warnings from the National Weather Service and Oregon officials that a “historic red-flag-warning weather event would occur, producing catastrophic winds in excess of 50 mph, and hot dry air that was likely to cause electrical system failures that would cause dangerous fires.”

courtroom exhibit in the PacifiCorp trial

Brigadoon Vineyards says they were unable to sell wines to the public at their regular price — if at all –and the winery claims that it lost retail shelf spaces and also suffered reputational damage, which may take 5 to 7 years to recoup after the fires. Brigadoon is just one of several wineries, including Willamette Valley Vineyards, suing PacifiCorp for damages from the 2020 Labor Day fires.

Willamette Valley Vineyards
Willamette Valley Vineyards

“Our grapes were just in the process of ripening at that time. And so many of the growers in the wineries were not able to use significant amounts of fruit they had grown,” said Jim Bernau, the founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards.

Washington protects workers from wildfire smoke

New regulations will require employers in Washington State to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke. KING5 News reported that the new regulations will take effect next month, making Washington the third state to establish year-round smoke protections for people who work outdoors. California and Oregon were the first two states to enact regulations.

“Wildfire smoke events have continued to happen in Washington state over the last five-plus years, seeming to be very consistent throughout the state each summer,” said Ryan Allen, senior program manager for the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

Wildfire smoke can cause short and long-term health problems. “Our primary pollutant of impact is the PM2.5,” Allen said. “It can get into the small recesses of your lungs and start causing damage within the lung itself.”

Starting in January the department will be enforcing year-round workplace protections for those who work outdoors in Washington. The primary petitioner in this case was the United Farm Workers Union; the initiative was advocated primarily by the community of agricultural workers. Emergency rules were enacted in several states during smoky conditions, but now the rule in Washington will be in effect all year round.

Efforts that employers must make during smoky conditions range based on air quality, and they include providing respiratory protection, requiring N95 masks, and requiring immediate medical attention and relocating the person to clean air when experiencing symptoms of smoke exposure.

Source NM reported that a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 87 percent of Americans experienced more days of heavy smoke in 2021 than they had in 2011. The change was marked east of the Mississippi River in states including New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — and Western states including Arizona, California, Colorado, and Washington. Eastern and Midwestern states this year were subjected to far more smoke than usual from the record-breaking fires in Canada.

Wildfire smoke contains an unpredictable mix of vaporized chemicals and microscopic particles that can enter the bloodstream when inhaled. The dangers have increased from the days of “forest fires” burning mostly trees and other vegetation; wildland/urban interface fires now often include smoke from burning plastics, construction materials, vehicles, outdoor equipment, and other hazardous fuels.

Dense smoke from the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon
 Dense smoke from the 2020 Beachie Creek Fire in Oregon. Inciweb photo.

Even at low levels, pollution from wildfire smoke can irritate the eyes and respiratory tracts of particularly sensitive people including children, older adults, and those with preexisting respiratory or cardiovascular conditions. At higher levels, pollutants in smoke can cause heart attacks and damage lung function.

Wildfire smoke toxicity worsened by heavy metals in soil, flame intensity

The job of wildland firefighters is grueling; long treks into the wild and countless hours of manual labor on the job take their toll. Because of this, gear is often reserved for the bare essentials like flame-resistant clothes, hard hats, and tools to cut a fireline.

Urban firefighters, on the other hand, are outfitted like armored tanks with gear that’s nearly triple the weight of what the wildland firefighter carries. The most obvious visual difference in their gear is a breathing apparatus, meant to protect structural firefighters from smoke. Despite this, cancer remains the largest killer of urban firefighters, in part because of the synthetic materials that burn inside buildings and release toxic chemicals into the air.

A self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is a device worn to provide an autonomous supply of breathable gas in an atmosphere unsafe for breathing — which structural firefighters often encounter.

Development of a wildland fire respirator. Two versions are being tested, with the filter being carried on the chest hip. Department of Homeland Security photo.
Development of a wildland fire respirator. Two versions are being tested, with the filter being carried on the chest hip. Department of Homeland Security photo.

A breathing apparatus or mask hasn’t historically been a staple of wildland firefighters’ gear, though some have been in testing for years. The added heavy carry capacity is one reason, along with the assumed lack of toxic chemical inhalation, since the fire’s burning in a natural area free from synthetic materials.

That assumption isn’t true, according to new research from Stanford University. Wildfire can actually create cancer-causing toxic heavy metals depending on where they burn and the severity of the flames.

“Soil-and plant-borne chromium is of particular concern,” the research team told WildfireToday. “Altered by fire, chromium is transformed into its toxic hexavalent state. We show that fire severity, geologic substrate, and ecosystem type influence landscape-scale production of hexavalent chromium in particulates during recent wildfires.”

The Stanford team researched soil and ash gathered from the 2019 Kincade Fire and the 2020 Hennessey Fire within the LNU Lightning Complex for their study. At the burn scars, the team measured the levels of chromium 6, which is known by most as the toxic chemical from the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, and they found dangerous levels of it in certain areas of the fire.

The chemical was present in heightened amounts where the soil had a greater concentration of metals from the area’s geology and had also been severely burned. Areas that weren’t on metal-rich geologies, or that had burned at a low severity, had either non-detectable chromium 6 levels or very low levels not of concern.

“Up until now, for wildfires at least, we’ve worried a lot about the fine particulate exposure … what we’ve been blind to is that those ultra-fine particles can differ in composition,” researcher Scott Fendorf said. “Even in wildfires that are completely removed from any dwellings, with certain geologies and certain vegetation types which are pretty common, we can see that the particles have these toxic metals in them.”

The team’s findings may not only help define the health risks wildland firefighters face in certain wildfires, but may also help in understanding what risks nearby populations may experience when inhaling air downwind of wildfires. In areas that experienced dry post-fire weather, chromium 6 was found to last on the soil’s surface in wind-dispersible particulates for up to a year after the fire was extinguished.

Researcher Alandra Marie Lopez hopes to further her research for this study and use the findings to examine what levels of chromium 6, if any, are found on landscapes post-prescribed burning. Additionally, the team hopes to use the research to create a risk analysis map to determine which areas and geologies after severe burns pose the greatest risk to human health.

Has the smoke made you forgetful?

Particulate matter (PM) is a chemical composition of smoke, including sulfates, carbon, nitrates, or mineral dusts. It stems from vehicle and industrial emissions and other fossil fuel burning, and researchers are now increasingly examining wildfires and the effects of longterm exposure to wildfire smoke that affect respiratory illnesses and other impacts to human health.

A subset of PM — fine particulate matter (PM2.5) — is especially dangerous to human health because it’s 30 times thinner than a human hair and can not only lodge in lung tissue but also cross into the brain after it’s inhaled.

NOAA smoke imageScientists from the University of Michigan have identified a link between agriculture and wildfire PM2.5 emissions and the onset of dementia among 27,857 adult Americans, with data drawn from the national Health and Retirement Study. Pollution estimates were based on the locations of the participants, who were older than 50 and did not have dementia at the outset. About 15 percent of the study participants developed dementia, but the rate of cognitive decline was significantly greater in the areas of high PM2.5 concentration between 1998 and 2016.

This joins a growing body of evidence forming a significant link between the microscopic toxins and dementia. The research was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

THANKS and a tip of the hardhat to Jay for this info.