Wildfire and Air Quality

Wildfire smoke containing fine particulate matter can cause eye and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, congestion, coughing, impaired lung function, and chest pain. When air quality is poor, the primary public health message is to stay indoors. However, not all community members have the same ability to limit smoke exposure in the buildings where they live, work, attend school, or spend time indoors. The Sierra Fund is working with local public health officials and service providers to ensure equitable access to places with cleaner air during wildfire.

The Sierra Nevada is home to only 2% of California’s population, but these residents are among the states most at-risk for climate-induced impacts on health, specifically from exposure to wildfire smoke. The region comprises 70% of the forested land in California and most homes are located in the fire-prone wildland-urban interface. Fine particulate matter due to fire emissions is predicted to increase 150-170% in the Western United States by 2050, exacerbating an already dire public health issue.

A line of cars evacuating in smoky conditions

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The imminent threat of wildfire due to warmer temperatures, earlier spring snowmelt, and overall decline in forest health puts increasingly larger geographic areas at risk for impacts. Smoke can travel long distances and dispersion is subject to unpredictable weather patterns. Even communities far from a fire event can be affected. State and local leaders and agencies are making progress toward mitigating wildfire risk, but the unprecedented pattern of consistent major wildfires in California warrants a comprehensive approach to mitigate smoke exposure for its residents.

The Sierra Fund’s Vision for reducing exposure to dangerous air quality associated with wildfire

The Sierra Fund’s vision for reducing exposure to dangerous air quality due to wildfire is to ensure that community members have access to cleaner air in their homes, at work and school, or in public spaces when it is not safe to be outside. One of the consequences of climate change in the Western United States is the growing prevalence of wildfires. Smoke, a secondary effect of wildfire, is becoming a prominent concern for community health. The Sierra Fund started to approach the issue of dangerous air quality in 2019, aiming to understand the problem by seeking input from stakeholders that provide community services and air quality monitoring to explore the implications of wildfire on public health and to discuss options for residents when air quality is unhealthy.

The measure of success for the Wildfire and Air Quality work is a reduced public health burden from wildfire smoke by identifying affordable and effective mitigation strategies and increasing public access to this information, in particular for low-income, socially or geographically isolated, and other vulnerable populations. Key to effective provision of cleaner air spaces is (1) understanding the unique needs of vulnerable communities with respect to cleaner air and (2) knowing the capabilities of existing facilities to provide cleaner air spaces (3) identifying stakeholders with resources and expertise to contribute to cleaner air strategy development and implementation including air quality experts, and organizations with the potential to provide community clean air spaces.

Coming Soon: Cleaner Air Strategy

Understanding Air Quality

Health Impacts of PM2.5 and How to Mitigate Exposure https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/health-and-environmental-effects-particulate-matter-pm

Information about Air Filters and Creating a Clean Room in your Home to Mitigate Unhealthy Air Quality