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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Wildfires

Air Date: Week of

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The California fires have cast a pall over much of the region. The smoke contains tiny particles that aggravate and sometimes cause breathing problems. Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet looks at just how much particulate the fires have propelled into the air.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. And coming up: “The Beast in the Garden.” What happened when the mountain lion comes home to Boulder, Colorado.

But first, all week long from California we’ve been hearing wrenching stories of dislocation as thousands of people have lost their homes to the fires running riot across the southern part of the state. Stories like those of Christine Thompson and her sister Janet Benton, who live near each other in a forested canyon on Lydel Creek, in the foothills east of Los Angeles.

BENTON: I’ve been trying to get a place up there for four years and we finally did. And I moved my daughter up there to get her out of San Bernadino and away from the gangs. And so I moved with her for safety’s sake. And she loved that little cabin. It’s the first time in five years that we actually had our own place. It was like we were just staring to get up on our feet, and we lost everything.

CURWOOD: Right now, no one’s stepping forward to help Christine and Janet rebuild when they leave the Red Cross shelter where they’re staying now, sleeping on cots. That’s because they didn’t own their homes. They’re renters. But Janet says her daughter has a plan.

BENTON: My daughter’s going to write Home Depot a letter and ask them if they’ll donate building materials, tell that that we’ve lost our home. It’s worth a try.

MALE: That’s wishful thinking.

BENTON: It could happen.

MALE: It could, I guess.

BENTON: [COUGHING] Yeah, I’ve had a cough for about two months, but it’s really bad tonight.

MALE: It’s getting worse.

BENTON: I’m having a hard time breathing tonight.

CURWOOD: Janet Benton’s cough is surely aggravated by the extra cigarettes she’s been smoking to ease her loss. But it can’t help that she and her fellow southern Californians have been inhaling a foul, yellow-brown pall, heavy with particulate.

Joining me to talk more about the fires and what they are propelling into the air is Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles. Ingrid, for the people who’ve lost their homes or, God forbid, a loved one, the air is clearly not their foremost concern right now, but 15 million people are breathing the smoky air over southern California. What’s it like?

LOBET: The smoke is thick. In some places you can’t see buildings you’ve gotten used to seeing every day. The EPA says the air is laden with particulate, as you mentioned. And this whole region often has more particulate than is considered healthy by the federal government in the first place. Some of these days, during the fire, small particulate levels have been five times what’s typical in Los Angeles. And peak levels reached 20 times what’s typical. In San Diego the air has ranged from unhealthy on one hand to hazardous on the other. In some places kids are not allowed out at recess right now, and I spoke with a pulmonologist yesterday, a lung doctor, who told me that doctors’ offices have been flooded by acute respiratory cases. Then I turned to John Kennedy, who manages technical support for the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, and asked him just how much particulate the fires have sent into the skies so far.

KENNEDY: We estimate that the particulate emissions that have come off of this fire is about 133 thousand tons so far.

LOBET: And that 133 thousand tons, Steve, is 800 times the amount released in one year by the average California refinery, and it’s just been a few days.

CURWOOD: No wonder the sky is grey-brown. What else do we know about what’s in the air?

LOBET: Well, we asked John Kennedy at EPA again to tally that, and when he came back he said that the fires have probably put out more than a million tons of gasses and particulate in all so far. And the majority of that total, he was surprised to find, is actually carbon monoxide.

KENNEDY: Yes, it is shocking, because you look at carbon monoxide levels which have been going downward – when a fire of this magnitude happens it puts out a lot of carbon monoxide. And that is of concern for people.

LOBET: Although all this carbon monoxide does not seem to be coming down to ground level where we would be breathing it.

CURWOOD: Yeah, thank God, it’s pretty deadly. Ingrid, tell me, how has the devastation of these fires – with human lives lost and so many homes burned – how is that related to people moving into a landscape where fire is to be expected, where there is a fire ecology?

LOBET: Well, you’re very right, it is related. We’ve pretty much used up all the flat land along this highly desirable edge of the country. And as people here continue to multiply, and as, also, we continue to look for homes that are kind of a refuge from a really urban life, we’re creeping up the hillsides and into the canyons where fire comes at pretty regular intervals.

And if you’ve found a little piece of paradise in one of these canyons, it can be really hard to heed the public safety warnings and cut down all the trees around your house to keep them from burning, when it could have been the trees that drew you there in the first place. One fire ecologist I spoke with, Ronald Quinn, told me that even he was very surprised at the number of people who were having to evacuate out of the San Bernadino Mountains, that there could even be 100,000 people living there now.

CURWOOD: Ingrid Lobet is Living on Earth’s west coast correspondent. Thanks, Ingrid.

LOBET: Thank you, Steve.



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