TL;DR—As wildfires intensify, so do the public health impacts of air pollution from wildfire smoke. During the 2020 wildfire season in California, Clarity gathered a group of public health advocates working across various domains to improve our ability to effectively respond to wildfire-related air pollution events. This conversation shed light on the important and fascinating work being done by groups across the United States to leverage high-resolution air quality data to better protect public health.

As the impacts of climate change intensify, California and the western United States have experienced increasingly large, frequent, and destructive wildfires. The 2020 wildfire season was especially difficult, with 5 of the 20 largest wildfires since 1932 burning between August and October, and the August Complex Fire near the California-Oregon border becoming the largest wildfire in California history, a “giga fire” with over 1 million acres of land burned.

These wildfires not only decimate the natural landscape but also impact human health: 1 in 7 Americans were impacted by unhealthy air quality due to the 2020 wildfires as the smoke traveled thousands of miles across the country. The particulate matter (PM) found in wildfire smoke is able to deposit deep in the lung airways due to its relatively high concentration of ultrafine particles (PM2.5), resulting in adverse effects on the lungs as well as cardiovascular and neurological health.

A variety of obstacles stand in the way of effectively managing the public health impacts of air pollution during wildfire season:

  • The need to educate about the effects of air pollution year-round — though air pollution may be more visible during wildfire season, it still presents harmful effects when invisible to the eye.
  • Data collection not occurring at the neighborhood level — there is a need for localized, real-time monitors that accurately reflect air pollution levels at the local level, reducing the need to depend on miles-away government monitors when making decisions to protect public health.
  • Accurate data calibration required for the most informed decision-making — calibration is essential for communicating accurate data to the communities most affected. The impacts of wildfire smoke on calibration and an overview of the calibration technique Clarity applied during the 2020 wildfire season can be seen here.

Exploring the importance of monitoring air quality during wildfire season

 During Clarity’s “Wildfire Smoke, Public Health, and Environmental Justice: Better Decision Making with Air Monitoring” webinar, four individuals in the field weighed in on the impacts the 2020 wildfires have had on their work to improve air quality and how better air pollution data drives their action going forward.

Air quality data-driven funding for forest restoration projects to take preventative measure against California wildfires

Abby Gritter, Chief of Staff at Blue Forest Conservation, works with this environmental finance nonprofit to catalyze forest restoration and management projects through stakeholder funding with innovative mechanisms such as the Forest Resilience Bond. By examining the public health costs associated with wildfire smoke, estimated at an annual $76 billion to $130 billion in the United States, the Forest Resilience Bond model motivates stakeholders from local government, healthcare, and other areas to invest in projects which reduce the chances of wildfires starting in the first place.

Forest restoration projects funded through the Forest Resilience Bond model, such as the Yuba Project in Tahoe National Forest, work to reduce wildfire risk through a variety of forest management actions.

Gritter’s work links the public health outcomes — hospital and doctor visits, symptoms felt by individuals at home, and subclinical, asymptomatic effects— experienced in conjunction with wildfire smoke to encapsulate this cost. With the heightened prevalence and intensity of wildfires in 2020, Gritter notes an increasing focus on public health effects not seen before by forest conservation groups.

She also notes that the more localized, specific wildfire smoke and air pollution data is, the easier it is to understand the link between air quality and public health outcomes. This is particularly important given the difficulty in measuring the total public health impact, since not all those affected will come into contact with the medical system. The more local and accurate this data, the better Blue Forest is able to demonstrate data-backed outcomes to stakeholders and catalyze payments that help them in forest restoration and wildfire risk reduction.

When discussing the impact recent wildfires have had on the organization, Gritter brings up the shifts seen towards prioritizing public health, even in forest management.

In our conversations with different forest management partners, [public health] just didn’t come up as a significant topic or impact...Fast forward to 2020, and everyone’s been talking about the public health impacts of wildfire smoke, as it’s been so impactful for residents of the western U.S. especially...We’re really thinking about how we include [air quality] as one of our core benefits going forwards with our Forest Resilience Bond model.”

Low-cost air quality monitoring networks at Denver public schools drive informed decision-making in protecting public health

As the Air Quality Program Manager at the City and County of Denver, Michael Ogletree has played a key role in developing the Love My Air program to educate the Denver community about air quality and manage its impacts on public health. This is accomplished through a real-time air quality monitoring network located in Denver public schools, which provides comprehensible, actionable information to the community. Love My Air displays dashboards in schools, keeping air quality top of mind and helping school administrators factor air pollution into decision-making, such as when it is appropriate for students to engage in outdoor activities. They also distribute community reports to encourage city- and county-wide engagement, advocacy, and education.

The Love My Air program in Denver, Colorado works directly with community members to make air quality information easily accessible. Their low-cost sensor network, seen in the bottom right, allows for the collection of data at the local level, ensuring informed decisions are made to keep the community healthy.

Ogletree notes that Colorado has been impacted by air pollution from its own fires, as well as smoke that has traveled hundreds of miles from California’s wildfires. While Denver’s low-cost sensor network monitors poor air quality from a range of sources such as construction and traffic congestion, air pollution resulting from wildfires is unique in the volatility and intensity of particulate matter (PM2.5) levels it causes. Air quality can change drastically in a matter of hours during a wildfire event, making it more important than ever to have access to real-time air quality data and provide that data through a program that is responsive to the needs of its community.

Looking at schools, our primary focus wasn’t wildfire smoke, but especially with the [recent fires], it’s been great to be able to do a bit of a pivot and have some of that information and use it to address some of the impacts from smoke and wildfires.”

 The implementation of low-cost sensors in Denver to help address the impacts of air pollution can be explored here.

Mapping the air quality and environmental justice impacts of wildfire smoke at the neighborhood level in San Francisco

Eddie Ahn, Executive Director of Brightline Defense, has worked to implement San Francisco’s first localized air quality monitoring program to support Brightline’s mission for environmental justice. The group works with under-served communities, including those in the Tenderloin, the South of Market neighborhood (SoMa), and single-room occupancy housing.

Brightline Defense works directly with vulnerable communities in San Francisco, using low-cost air quality sensing networks to collect data at the neighborhood level and work towards greater environmental justice for those harmed by air pollution.

Ahn remarks that they have seen an outsized impact of wildfire smoke on the vulnerable populations they serve, who already face many day-to-day environmental and economic hardships. While these communities have unknowingly suffered from exposure to air pollution for decades, the extreme conditions during wildfire events have forced the issue and helped to raise awareness about the importance of air quality. Thus, a silver lining to the devastating impacts of wildfire is that air quality measurement is now a significant component of Brightline’s data-driven approach to addressing the public health needs of these communities.

Seeing the devastating air quality impacts…and [having] the communities struggle with that on a day-to-day basis is heartbreaking."

Ahn notes that while their community-driven air quality monitoring program was installed in time to monitor during the recent wildfire season, the impacts on the communities they serve “[are] very difficult to grapple with as an organization”.

Brightline Defense’s implementation of a low-cost sensing network can be explored here.

Policy change as an avenue for air quality improvement in the face of exacerbated natural disaster

As Policy Director for the Coalition for Clean Air (CCA), Bill Magavern works to improve air quality, protect public health, and prevent climate change by advocating for policy change.

Magavern highlights the stark changes seen in air quality over the course of the year, from unprecedented improvements in air quality when pandemic lockdowns began, to a rapid decline during wildfire season. He remarks that, “Even on the days when there’s no smoke from wildfires, we often have impaired air quality, and most of that air pollution comes from transportation”, driving home the need to maintain public awareness and interest in air pollution not only resulting from extraordinary events but from everyday sources as well.

This year, air pollution has been so visible...and people are much more cognizant now of air quality."

The CCA's work was instrumental in passing SB 535 , which direct funds from California’s cap and trade program to environmental justice programs such as AB 617, which promotes local air quality monitoring networks and community empowerment. Such policies work to provide the data needed to improve air quality at a more granular level than is possible with sparse government monitors.

Air quality monitoring networks allow the CCA to work with policymakers to create enforceable measures that improve air quality. Some of the ways CCA works to improve California’s air quality include spreading awareness about air quality issues and supporting environmentally conscious policies, such as those requiring large polluters to reduce their emissions and using incentive funding to replace “dirty” vehicles with clean ones.

Using local air quality data to empower action against the devastating impacts of wildfires on human and environmental health

Having data at the neighborhood level through local air quality networks is essential to ground-truth conversations about air quality. These organizations all benefit from the availability of local air quality data to help spread awareness about the importance of air quality with the stakeholders they serve, ranging from local communities to policymakers. By increasing public education and ensuring that the most impacted communities have a seat at the table, informed action can be taken to reduce the detrimental effects of air pollution—particularly in a world where rampant wildfires and other sources of air pollution are becoming all the more prevalent.

To view the speakers’ discussion firsthand, a recording of the webinar is available here.