Tech & Science

Can Wildfire Smoke Make You Sick? Plumes From Worst Wildfire in California History Reach Massachusetts

With three major wildfires raging in California, it’s no surprise many areas of the state are covered in a vast blanket of smoke.

Incredibly, elements of this smoke cloud are spreading across the entire country, according to maps released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reaching as far as the East Coast, about 3,000 miles away.

The maps clearly show that most of the smoke had accumulated just off the coast of California and Baja California in Mexico. But one large, relatively narrow band can be seen extending eastward over several central and northeastern states. Earlier today, the band separated completely from the main mass of smoke; by around 7 p.m. ET tonight, it will have largely moved beyond the borders of the country.

While not everyone has the same sensitivity to wildfire smoke, breathing it in can be damaging, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn," the EPA website stated.

“The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.”

People with heart or lung disease, children (including teenagers), diabetics and pregnant women are particularly at risk from poor air quality caused by fire smoke.

trc1_int_f07 A map depicts how smoke from the California wildfires has traveled across the United States. NOAA

In areas with “unhealthy” levels of pollution, the EPA recommended that at-risk people should avoid strenuous outdoor activities, keep outdoor activities short and consider moving physical activities indoors or rescheduling them. Everyone else should choose less strenuous activities and shorten their amount of time being active outdoors.

It is important to pay attention to local air quality reports if you live near a major fire, especially if you belong to a high-risk group or you care for children. (Check the air quality where you are here.)

Three major fires are burning in California: Camp Fire, in Butte County (northern California), and Woolsey Fire and Hill Fire, both of which are burning in the areas surrounding Los Angeles.

The Camp Fire has burned about 113,000 acres, destroyed more than 6,700 homes and businesses in the town of Paradise, and claimed at least 29 lives. That means it is already the joint deadliest fire in California history. With more than 200 people still missing, the death toll is expected to rise. The fire is also the most destructive based on the numbers of structures damaged.

Two people lost their lives in the Woolsey Fire, which has burned more than 85,000 acres of dry brush outside Los Angeles.

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