Wildfires briefly pushed 3 California cities on the world's most polluted air list

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
December 06, 2018, 7:51:27 AM EST

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The United States ranks as one of the countries with the lowest air pollution, but the country could see an opposite trend if monster wildfires become the new norm as the recent U.S. government climate assessment indicates.

The Camp Fire, which recently became the most deadly and destructive wildfire in California history, bumped three of California's cities on the list of the most polluted cities in the world on Nov. 16.

San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton were briefly ranked as the world's three most polluted cities during the wildfires, according to Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit that collects data from air-quality monitoring sites.

Countries that often top the list for poor air quality levels include India, China and Bangladesh.

Air pollution in India is due to population growth, increase in the numbers of vehicles, use of fuels, poor transportation systems, poor land use patterns, industrialization, as well as ineffective environmental regulations.


Schools, universities and public transit closed due to the enormous amounts of smoke from the Camp Fire in the region.

Experts believe climate change with drier and hotter conditions will create the perfect conditions for more wildfires in the future.

The National Climate Assessment released in November 2018 said projected increases in wildfire smoke events are expected to impair outdoor recreational activities and visibility in wilderness areas.

The assessment also said changes in temperature and precipitation are increasing air quality and health risks from wildfire and ground-level ozone pollution.

AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist and climate change blogger Brett Anderson agreed climate warming is likely going to be responsible for more frequent periods of extreme drought, especially in normally dry climate regions such as California and much of the southwestern U.S.

"These extreme droughts can set the stage for these mega-fires as dried-out forest regions can burn much more quickly. The long-term warming is also allowing more insects to survive through the winter," Anderson said.

According to Anderson, some of these insects include species that can seriously weaken or kill large amounts of trees. Fires can spread much more rapidly through a dead, dried-out forest.

"Building homes with fire-resistant materials, keeping brush and foliage cleared from your yard, and staying up to date on the local wildfire threat are good ways to help to slow spreading wildfires and ensure your life is minimally impacted by them," AccuWeather Meteorologist and air quality blogger Faith Eherts said.

California Wildfires Health

Mattelin Bautista and Stephen Penner don masks to deal with the smoke from the Camp Fire that shrouds the state Capitol Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)


Eherts said investing in in-home air purifiers and smoke masks can also help to limit the health impacts of poor air quality when wildfires spark nearby.

Wildfire smoke includes particles from burning vegetation and building materials mixed with gases. Toxins and fumes are added to the harmful mix when other things burn, like plastic from house fires

All of those particles could affect the people's health such as respiratory system and eyes, especially if somebody already has underlying respiratory problems, like asthma, emphysema, COPD. Smokers could also be affected.

According to Angel Waldron, a spokesperson for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, air pollution can worsen asthma symptoms, and it is also connected to the development of asthma.

Wildfire smoke can be especially harmful to the elderly, pregnant women, children and those with chronic heart and lung diseases.

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"Airborne particles, found in haze, smoke and airborne dust, present serious air quality problems. People with asthma are at greater risk from breathing in small particles," Waldron said.

The particles can make asthma worse. Waldron said both long-term and short-term exposure can cause health problems such as reduced lung function and more asthma attacks.

"The health impacts of air pollution can vary, and some populations – such as children, the elderly, people with lung disease and those who are active or work outdoors – are particularly vulnerable to dangerous health issues from breathing ozone- and smoke-polluted air," Waldron said.

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