The Scary Reach of the Camp Fire’s Flames

It’s not just the people who are directly in the fire’s destructive path that are in danger. Smoke is causing bad air quality in a large swath of the state.

Two Raiders fans wear respirator masks covering their noses and mouths during an NFL game in Oakland, California.
Raiders fans wear respirator masks during an NFL game in Oakland, California, on Nov. 11. An air quality advisory was issued because of heavy wildfire smoke in parts of the Bay Area from the Camp Fire in Butte County.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The now-infamous Camp Fire ignited near the small town of Paradise in Butte County, California, early Thursday morning. In the few days since, it has grown into what is now the state’s most destructive fire in history. Within hours, strong winds pushed plumes of thick smoke around the region, stretching hundreds of miles along the coast and inland. Since Thursday, a large swath of Northern California, including Sacramento and the Bay Area, has been blanketed in a yellowish haze that has blocked out the blue sky. The sun is an eerie red, and the air smells like a perpetual bonfire.

The current air quality map of California is alarming. On Monday, in significant portions of Northern California, the air was rated “unhealthy” for anyone outdoors. An even larger area was rated as “unhealthy” for sensitive groups—that is, people with pre-existing heart and lung conditions, young children, and the elderly. The Environmental Protection Agency considers Air Quality Index values over 100 to be unhealthy for sensitive groups, and over 150 is considered unhealthy for everyone.

Californians outside the Camp Fire’s path of destruction may be safe from immediate harm, but they are not immune to negative health effects caused by the blaze. Notably, the recorded air quality in areas far away from the Camp Fire is in some cases even worse than in areas directly adjacent to the fire. In Chico, about 10 miles from Paradise, the AQI score was 158 on Monday. In Sacramento, about 80 miles south of the fire, the AQI score was 177. Even further away, San Francisco was 164, and Oakland was 169. (You can check out the air quality for anywhere in the U.S. here.)

During wildfires, it is important for people experiencing bad air quality to take precautions against the smoke’s insidious impact. Smoke from wildfires is filled with gases and particles that can cause a wide range of short-term health problems, including coughing, wheezing, phlegm, runny nose, burning or stinging eyes, and shortness of breath. Large particulate matter, called PM10, can cause physical discomfort, but it is the fine particulate matter, called PM2.5, that is far more dangerous to your health. As Megan Molteni wrote in Slate during last year’s wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties, “particles this small can be inhaled into the deepest recesses of the lungs, into the broccoli-shaped alveolar sacs, where they bypass the body’s filtration systems and slip directly into the bloodstream.” The New York Department of Health warns that long-term exposure to high levels of PM2.5 “may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease.”

A few days of smoke exposure may not amount to long-term exposure, but it’s still worthwhile to take as many steps as you can to protect yourself against wildfire smoke, and there are many steps you can take. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay indoors if possible, keeping the windows and doors closed. (For homeless people in California, the situation is more dire, although some institutions, like the San Francisco Public Library, have announced they will stay open later to provide respite from the unhealthy air, and a group of volunteers in Oakland is working to distribute face masks to local homeless people.) If you have an air conditioner, make sure the fresh-air intake is closed to prevent it from bringing in smoke from outside. You can also purchase an air cleaner with a HEPA filter to help remove particles from the air. To cut down on creating more pollution, refrain from smoking, burning candles, lighting a fire in the fireplace, or using a gas stove inside.

If you do go outside for an extended period of time, keep in mind that scarves, bandanas, and normal surgical masks don’t prevent the inhalation of harmful PM2.5 particles. Instead, you should use a respirator mask. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends using a “particulate respirator” that has been tested and approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.* These masks will be labeled with “NIOSH,” “N95,” or “P100.” For proper use, the respirator mask must be worn with two straps around your head, and it must fit snugly over your nose and under your chin.

Unfortunately, these masks have some constraints that make it impossible for everyone to use them. Respirator masks do not come in sizes suitable for children’s small faces, and people with beards can’t wear them (facial hair makes it difficult for the masks to seal). Additionally, since the masks are thick and tight-fitting, they can make breathing more difficult or lead to heat-related illness if it’s hot outside. There are also reports of respirator mask shortages at local stores as residents rush to stock up on them, and at least one hardware store in Berkeley imposed a limit of three masks per customer.

The recommended solution for people who can’t access masks or use masks properly—and, frankly, everyone else—is to leave the area until the smoke dissipates (or stay indoors as much as possible). This, of course, is far from ideal or even realistic for many people who don’t have the ability to relocate temporarily. As California’s wildfires have gotten bigger and deadlier, fires and smoke are becoming regular features of life in the Golden State. Harm to people’s lungs is yet another external cost of what is already shaping up to be a devastating and ongoing disaster.

Correction, Nov. 13, 2018: This piece originally misidentified the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.