Smoke Days Are Now California’s Snow Days

The particulates in smoke don’t destroy homes. They don’t down trees. But in the case of wildfires, smoke’s impacts—and dangers—can reach hundreds of miles further than the flames themselves. As of Friday evening, the Camp Fire raging in Butte County, north of the San Francisco Bay Area, has a death toll of 71 and has left more than 1,000 people unaccounted for. The fire’s smoke, meanwhile, has been endangering the health of millions of of Northern Californians.

Northern California had some of the worst air quality in the world at the end of this week, with levels of hazardous airborne particulate soaring. With that has come a variety of public-health moves to keep residents safe in the region’s most populated areas. There have been widespread school and university closures. Many businesses have urged employees to work from home. Some public transit in San Francisco has been made free, in an effort to keep people inside as much as possible if they must commute.

In a region whose weather is usually pretty temperate, smoke days have become the Bay Area’s version of snow days. But instead of a joyful respite from work, wildfire smoke mixes a blizzard’s large-scale logistical nightmares with the anxiety of worsening climate change and a class divide that plagues American public health. Three of the five largest fires on record in California have occurred in the past three years, all in the northern part of the state. For the region’s residents, smoke days won’t go away once the Camp Fire is contained.

The risk posed by wildfire smoke is significant, and it goes far beyond a few days of coughing or headaches. According to Kristie Ebie, a professor of global public health at the University of Washington, the consequences of breathing wildfire smoke extend to other parts of the body because of the noxious nature of the tiny debris the smoke carries with it. “That affects not only people’s lungs, but it gets absorbed into people’s systems,” she says. Recent research shows that absorption can lead to cardiac arrest, stroke, and other deadly outcomes.

UC Berkeley had also taken longer than some schools in the region to cancel classes earlier in the week, with students complaining on Twitter that the smoke was so strong inside classroom buildings that it triggered fire alarms. The University of California at Davis has similarly faced criticism for dismissing students but still initially asking employees to come to work, before closing campus entirely.

A person’s ability to take precautions in smoky conditions often depends on far more complicated factors than their willingness to listen to public-health warnings. The Bay Area is a place of soaring income inequality and a deepening homelessness crisis, and for its poor and working-class residents, working from home or getting out of town for a few days often aren’t useful suggestions.

Sue Levinson, who has been a San Francisco resident for 45 years, said that she’s lived through lots of Northern California fires, but this is the worst smoke she’s ever seen. Still, though, some things were continuing apace in her neighborhood. “They’re renovating the house next door, and the guys are still out there. They’ve been out there all day,” she says.

Additional reporting contributed by Ellen Cushing.

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