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Wildfires And Public Health Concerns


In California, the fires continued to burn, and the skies in Northern California turned dark this week as smoke and ash filled the air. Headlights and street lamps had to be turned on in the middle of the day. Schools were closed. And public health departments urged people to stay indoors. At one point, the entire region was even listed as having the worst air pollution in the world. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Chico.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: You'd be forgiven for mistaking the streets of downtown Chico for a suburb of Beijing. Haze, ash, smoke, dust have reduced visibility to a few blocks. Almost everyone you see wears smoke masks. The coughing, the sneezing...

MIKE WOOD: It's hard - eyes watering, just absolute mucus. It's horrible. It's a horrible way to be.

SIEGLER: In front of the post office, there's a long line of wildfire victims, including Mike Wood. He's been waiting to pick up his rerouted mail. Wood lost his home in nearby Paradise. His family found an old motel an hour south of here, but the ventilation isn't great.

WOOD: By the time we get back there and actually lay down, there's something about laying down that makes it worse and worse and worse as the night goes on. And I mean, you can even now - coughing right now.

SIEGLER: Wood's wife has breast cancer. And she's in the middle of chemo. She was supposed to get treatments this week, but the hospital up in Paradise burned.

WOOD: I think she's regressing right now. She's inhaling too much particulate matter, and it's making her cough and the tension on her chest is just not what she needs right now.

SIEGLER: The air pollution is just the latest stress on this community. Tens of thousands of people are directly affected by the fire. But millions of people are in the path of the smoke and its serious health risks. Hazardous air warnings have been in effect as far away as San Francisco, 160 miles from here.

LISA ALMAGUER: We urge everyone to stay indoors. There are groups of people that are more sensitive. But at this point we're saying, it's going to affect everyone.

SIEGLER: Lisa Almaguer is with the Butte County Health Department. She says there are growing reports of hospital admissions and, in particular, parents bringing in kids with asthma like symptoms.

ALMAGUER: The wildfire smoke is a combination of burning trees and vegetation and buildings and hazardous materials, chemicals, asbestos, everything that a whole town is created with and built upon.

SIEGLER: And almost all of Paradise, Calif., burned to the ground. These aren't just forest fires anymore taking out the occasional vacation cabin or barn. These are destroying long-established towns, houses with lead paint, cars and gas tanks obliterated. And the health effects of prolonged exposure to urban wildfire smoke are still being studied by scientists like Keith Bein at the University of California, Davis.

KEITH BEIN: This kind of situation where we're just sitting in a plume for seven days in a row now is unprecedented. And it's not only about what the composition of it is. It's just the proximity to heavily populated areas.

SIEGLER: This weekend, Bein and his team are on their way to the Camp Fire to collect air quality samples. In areas already burned, there are still big risks.

BEIN: We're working hard to understand both, you know, the immediate, acute health effects of exposure but also what happens in the long term if this becomes the norm and people are chronically exposed to this kind of air pollution. And that's very concerning.

SIEGLER: In the Chico area, folks already suffered through a summer of unhealthy smoke-choked skies, largely from another deadly fire up in Redding. And now this. Here's how Pat Plum puts it.

PAT PLUM: I'm an ex-smoker. I smoked for 30 some years. And sometimes, it just feels like you're right there with your nose in the ashtray.

SIEGLER: But Plum's got more immediate concerns. She lost her home and she's trying to figure out where she'll live these next few months. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Chico, Calif.


Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.