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California wildfire smoke linked to early deaths


It is unseasonably hot in the western U.S., and that is increasing the risk of wildfires. A new study shows the risk is not just the fires themselves. The smoke can be deadly. NPR's Alejandra Borunda has more.

ALEJANDRA BORUNDA, BYLINE: Rachel Connolly grew up in California, a state that has always been plagued by wildfires. She remembers one really bad year in high school in 2008.

RACHEL CONNOLLY: The sky was hazy and red.

BORUNDA: She played water polo, and she didn't really take the smoke seriously.

CONNOLLY: At that time, I really didn't have a good concept of what it meant. You know, we were still sitting outside, sitting on the pool deck, breathing in that air.

BORUNDA: Now she's a scientist at UCLA who studies an increasingly urgent topic the health effects of wildfire smoke.

CONNOLLY: Well, it's no secret that wildfires have worsened across the western U.S.

BORUNDA: Wildfires have gotten bigger and more intense because of human-caused climate change and decades of insufficient forest management.

CONNOLLY: And with those fires come smoke pollution and increasing health impacts.

BORUNDA: Now, Connolly knows that smoke pollution can actually be deadly. In a new paper published this week in Science Advances, Connolly and her colleagues calculated that wildfire smoke is responsible for about 50,000 deaths across California between 2008 and 2018.

CONNOLLY: Economic impacts from these deaths are in the range of $430 billion.

BORUNDA: 2018 was a particularly bad fire year. That's when the Camp Fire burned Paradise, Calif., to the ground. It killed 85 people, but the researchers found that 12,000 more may have died prematurely from that year's wildfire smoke.

Lisa Miller is a researcher at the University of California, Davis. She explains that breathing in smoke triggers inflammation. That extra stress can push, say, a heart problem, from manageable to deadly long after the smoke exposure.

LISA MILLER: It's kind of like revving up an engine that's, you know, already stressed to the max.

BORUNDA: Wildfire smoke can travel far and affect millions, like last summer, when smoke from Canada drifted as far away as Georgia. Miller says the study shows that smoke should be taken seriously, especially as this year's wildfire season gets underway. Alejandra Borunda, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Borunda
[Copyright 2024 NPR]