Understanding the California Wildfires

The world watched the horror of California wildfires that was engulfed in flames in 2017 and 2018.

Bird's Eye California Wildfires

Source: CDN Satellite Today

Countless videos on Youtube showing terrifying and horrible moments for the residents of California show the sheer terror of being trapped by a fast-moving inferno without knowing the way out. Many have lost their homes, jobs and, in some cases, their lives as the effects of California wildfires. With 39.6 million residents, California is the most populous U.S. state and the third-largest by area. It has dry, windy and often hot weather conditions from spring through late autumn. These can produce moderate to devastating wildfires such as in the California wildfires. At times, these wildfires are fanned or made worse by strong, dry winds, known as Diablo winds.

California Wildfire - Diablo and Santa Ana Winds

Source: CNBC

According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, in 2018 Northern Cali's Camp Fire engulfed 153,336 acres of land. Destroyed 18,804 structures which consisted of 10,155 residential homes, 4,293 unclassified buildings, 3,817 mobile/motor homes, 490 commercial buildings, 30 schools, 19 churches and sadly took 85 lives. This was the largest, most destructive and deadliest California wildfires in history. The long-term damage caused by this incident is not only to the scarred landscape but also to the health impacts of poor air quality.

Wildfire Building Constraction Map

Source: LA Times

In November 2018, Northern California's Campfire, the Woolsey, and Hill fires in Southern California led officials to issue unhealthy air quality warnings throughout the San Francisco Bay area and affected populations in and around Los Angeles.

According to The New York Times residents of smog-choked wildfire in Northern California woke to learn that their pollution levels in November 2018 exceeded cities in China and India, which regularly rank among the worst globally. Nearly 200 miles to the south, in San Francisco, the smoke was too thick that health warnings led to widespread school closings. Even the city’s cable cars were not on the streets.

Fire Map 2017 Fire Map 2018

What could 2019 bring?

On early January 2019, a blaze broke out 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of San Francisco, burning 30 acres in Humboldt County. The global warming, that has intensified California’s cyclical droughts, leaving the land riddled with pockets of dry brush that persist even amid winter rains which makes the state is forecast to be drier for a time. As stated in Bloomberg, that could mean in 2019 more fires will be coming like the one in Humboldt County last week.

However, as explained on Fortune, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection predicted 2019 might give California wildfires break this year. The data recorded until April 2nd, 2019, there have been 149 wildfires in the state. In comparison, there were 720 in that period last year.

Officials at Cal Fire added that this is due to the soaking rains that have permeated the state this winter. Besides, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the fire activity for the first two months of 2019 has been well below average.

What is actually in wildfire smoke?

California wildfires smokes

According to Air Now, smoke is a complex mixture of carbon dioxide, water vapour, carbon monoxide, particles, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides, and trace minerals. Although smoke can contain hundreds of different chemicals and fumes, visible smoke is mostly carbon (soot), tar, oils, and ash.

Smoke occurs when there is incomplete combustion (not enough oxygen to burn the fuel completely). Incomplete combustion, burning, producing just water and carbon dioxide. When incomplete combustion occurs, it will not burn everything. Smoke is a collection of these tiny unburned particles. Each particle is too small to see with your eyes, but when they come together, you see them like smoke.

Health Effects of Smoke

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the biggest health threat from wildfire smoke like in the California wildfires, is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as headaches; eye irritation; and irritation of the linings of their nasal passages, sinuses, throat, and bronchi.

At the smallest sizes, such as PM2.5, particulates are small enough to go deep into the lungs and pass into the bloodstream. This is known to be associated with significant long term negative health impacts such as cancer. When people are exposed to the particulates in the smoke, they cough, produce more mucus and experience nasal congestion.

Wildfire smoke will affect everyone to an extent and there are factors that will increase the chance of serious health problems. For examples, the level and duration of exposure, age, individual susceptibility, including the presence or absence of pre-existing lung or heart disease. For those who have existing respiratory problems such as asthma and other chronic obstructive lung diseases, inhaling wild fire smoke might make the condition more severe. Those with asthma or lung disease should consult with their doctors for medical advice regarding smoke inhalation. Colleen Reid, an environmental health sciences researcher and assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder has proven that people with these conditions are more likely to need to go to the emergency room or to use more of their prescription medicines when wildfire smoke is in the air. You can read her full report here.

Sensitive groups California Wildfires

Sensitive groups


Asthma is a condition in which your airways narrows, swells and produces extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. For some people, asthma is a minor nuisance. For others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.

We cannot cure asthma but still, we can control the symptoms. Because asthma often changes over time, it's important that you work with your doctor to track your signs and symptoms and adjust treatment as needed, especially during the wildfire.


According to COPD Foundation, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory (non-reversible) asthma. Increasing breathlessness is one of the characteristics of this disease.

COPD is a progressive and (currently) incurable disease, but with the right diagnosis and treatment, there are many things you can do to manage your COPD and breathe better. People can live for many years with COPD and enjoy life.


Damage to the alveoli (air sacs) causes emphysema. The walls inside the alveoli disappear, making many small sacs become larger, single sacs. These larger sacs do not absorb oxygen which leads to the blood absorbing less oxygen.

Also, when the alveoli are damaged, the lungs are stretched out and lose their springiness. The airways become flabby, and the air could not escape from the lungs. It becomes hard to breathe out. This creates a feeling of shortness of breath.

Chronic Bronchitis

Damage to the bronchial tubes causes chronic bronchitis. Bronchitis occurs when the bronchial tubes are irritated and swollen. This causes coughing and shortness of breath. If mucus comes up with the cough and the cough lasts at least three months for two years in a row, bronchitis has become chronic bronchitis.

There are hair-like fibers lining the bronchial tubes of the lungs. "Cilia" is the term for these tiny hairs that help moving mucus up the tubes so you can cough out. In chronic bronchitis, the tubes have lost their cilia. This makes it hard to cough up mucus, which causes more coughing. More coughing makes the tubes more irritated which creates more mucus. The tubes then become swollen, making it hard to breathe. Smoking even just a little keeps the cilia from working normally. Mucus can build up in the lungs. This can cause more damage.

Refractory (non-reversible) asthma

Refractory (non-reversible) asthma is a type of asthma that does not respond to usual asthma medications. In an asthma attack, bronchial airways tighten up and swell. Medications can usually reverse this, opening up the airways and returning them to how they were before the asthma attack. In refractory asthma, medications cannot reverse the tightening and swelling of the airways.

People with COPD may develop lower respiratory infections after exposure to wildfire smoke, which may require urgent medical care as well. In addition, because COPD is usually the result of many years of smoking, individuals with this condition may also have heart disease and are potentially at risk from both conditions.

The Elderly

The elderly may also be more affected than younger people because important respiratory defense mechanisms may decline with age. Particulate air pollution can compromise the function of alveolar macrophages, cells involved in immune defenses in the lungs, potentially increasing susceptibility to bacterial or viral respiratory infections.


The past California wildfires have experienced that health threats from smoke will also easily affect children. Their airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. Also, children often spend more time outdoors engaged in activity and play.

Pregnant Women

Smoke is more likely affects older adults, especially pregnant women. This may be due to their increased risk of heart and lung diseases. Wildfire smoke contains many of the same compounds as cigarette smoke. In addition, recent data suggest that exposures to ambient air pollution in cities may result in low birth weight. Possibly more serious adverse reproductive effects. Therefore, it would be prudent to consider pregnant women as a potentially susceptible population as well.

So, what can I do to protect my exposure to wildfire smokes? Stay tuned on the next blog to find out how…