Air Pollution From California Wildfires Prompts Opening of Clean Air Centers to Protect Homeless

Clean air centers are being opened up in California to protect people from air pollution caused by the record-breaking wildfires been burning across the state. These centers are available so vulnerable people, such as the homeless, can get some respite from the unhealthy and hazardous air blanketing much of the state.

However, with over 150,000 homeless people in California, there has been criticism that not enough centers are opening—and capacity where they are is too limited.

Across California, almost 5,000 structures destroyed been incinerated in the fires, with over 20 dead. Aside from the immediate threat, the fires also cause widespread air pollution, with smoke from the fires traveling long distances from its original source. Smoke from the latest fires in California has traveled over 4,000 miles, going as far as the east coast and almost reaching the islands of Hawaii.

According to the government's AirNow website, the Air Quality Index (AQI), which provides information on how polluted air is and whether it poses a risk to public health, shows many parts of California currently have unhealthy or very unhealthy air levels. On Monday three areas, including Joshua Tree National Park, have air listed as hazardous.

"Wildfire smoke is severely impacting our air quality," Rengie Chan, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Newsweek in an email. "For the San Francisco Bay Area, the wildfire season was started by dry lightning the night of August 16. Our area has been under 'Spare the Air' alert since August 17, and it's been the longest stretch of consecutive alerts for our area."

Chan, a research scientist whose work focuses on pollutant transport between indoor and outdoor air, said wildfires produce a mixture of particles and gases from the burning of biomass, vehicles, residences and other buildings. These include organic carbon, black carbon (or soot), ash and heavy metals.

The impact of wildfire smoke on health is well studied. These include sneezing, sore throat and itchy eyes. It has also been linked with increased hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and can cause problems for people with asthma.

Avoiding exposure by staying indoors is one of the key messages for people to protect their health during times of heightened air pollution.

Clean air centers were introduced in California as a pilot program to help provide respite to vulnerable people. In 2019, a bill was enacted that meant during wildfires, clean air centers would be administered by the state in order to minimize the public health impacts from these events. Official centers have been opened in San Jose, Oakland, the City of Eugene and Alameda, while "smoke relief centers" have been opened in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, Weather Relief Centers have been opened to offer respite to those who cannot shelter indoors.

Marcos Ramirez, one of the founders of Mask Samoa, an organization that provides masks to people without homes to protect them from wildfire smoke and coronavirus, told The Guardian there has been little effort to protect homeless people. "There was no concerted effort to get those folks off the street, let alone effort to get PPE to them," he told the newspaper, referring to the Lightning Complex fire last month. "The long story short is, folks were exposed and they were exposed for a long period of time...Folks suffered, and who knows what that will mean in terms of the long-term effects for their health."

bobcat fire
Smoke plume from the Bobcat Fire in the Angeles National Forest. Air pollution has increased across California because of the record-breaking wildfires. David McNew/Getty Images