Despite fewer wildfires in the past two years, the average number of days with heavy smoke in California’s air has been rising. Californians continue to express concern about wildfires, as the incidents of wildfires have increased across the state, underscoring the need for preparation ahead of a natural disaster.
Wildfire smoke sends heightened levels of fine particulate matter into the air, specifically PM2.5—particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter. In addition, wildfire smoke also contains greenhouse gases and photochemically reactive compounds, contributing to a range of adverse health effects, from minor issues like persistent coughing to more serious issues like exacerbating asthma or heart conditions.
The dangers from this particulate matter are a particular threat to children, who are more likely to be exposed to wildfire smoke and more susceptible to its effects. Children spend more time outdoors, they breathe more rapidly, and particulate matter penetrates their lungs more easily. Wildfire-specific PM2.5 is about ten times more harmful to children’s respiratory health than ambient PM2.5, or fine particles related to pollution, raising concerns about potential long-term harm to their lung development.
Heavy smoke due to wildfires and elevated PM2.5 levels is on the rise across California, although the differences across regions are notable. In addition, prescribed burns, a method to prevent more extensive wildfires, also compromise air quality. From 2011 to 2020, a typical county in California saw an uptick of 3.6 days per year in the average number of days with heavy density smoke. In regions such as the Inland Empire and San Diego, the rise was less than two days annually. In contrast, 23 counties had four additional days of heavy smoke per year; many of these counties are situated in the Central Valley, Sacramento region, and far north.
Given that most children spend much of their time either at school or at home, preparing to respond to wildfire and heavy smoke in these environments warrants careful consideration. Schools have established guidelines to address this concern, such as setting limits on outdoor activities, wearing masks, and using HEPA filters in classrooms. The state also invested in air filtration devices for school facilities during the pandemic.
However, whether all school districts have adhered to protocols or have accessed pandemic-era resources remains uncertain. Many schools also do not have precise information about PM2.5 levels in their area, which can hinder decisions about how and when to address smokey days. Furthermore, individuals need to receive accurate and timely information and closely adhere to recommended practices to protect children at home and in their communities.
Several studies underscore the crucial role of public awareness in lessening smoke exposure. Clear policies and guidelines that aim to reduce children’s exposure to wildfire smoke are essential in addressing this evolving challenge, along with using supplemental sensors to monitor local air quality. Schools and families need accurate, up-to-date information to make informed decisions regarding outdoor activities and protective measures. While the state makes information about wildfires and air quality available to the public via the internet and apps, developing more precise and immediate communication strategies will be critical to protecting health across California.