Carbon Monoxide From California Wildfires Drifting Across the United States

The wildfires burning across California have claimed the lives of firefighters, burned structures and resulted in the loss of thousands of acres of vegetation. But their side effects aren't isolated to the Golden State.

While the state's air quality has been deemed unhealthy in some areas, the byproducts of the fires are also making their way across the country and affecting air quality elsewhere, according to NASA.

In the immediate areas near the fires, smoke and ash are a concern, along with small particles from the materials that burned in the blaze. Those byproducts can cause symptoms in people who are exposed to them, including coughing, a runny nose and difficulty breathing.

But carbon monoxide, a pollutant and another byproduct of the fires, is traveling across state borders and into the rest of the country. Satellite data from NASA shows the concentration of the carbon monoxide that was emitted by the fires in early August. They also show that concentration, represented by orange and red on the map, drifting eastward this month.

An animated series of images from NASA shows the cloud of the gas moving across the country from July 29 to August 8.

Carbon monoxide from California’s #wildfires is drifting east. This @NASA satellite is on it:

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) August 14, 2018

The satellite that collected the data on the carbon monoxide concentrations measured the levels high in the atmosphere. While it stays there, it has little impact on the air people down on the Earth's surface are breathing, according to NASA. The carbon monoxide can become a problem if it drifts down thanks to strong winds and enters the lower levels of the atmosphere. When it travels down, it can affect the air quality.

Primary contributors of carbon monoxide are any carbon-based fuels, such as coal and oil. But wildfires can also be large contributors when the blazes are large enough.

The Environmental Protection Agency's AirNow tool maps air quality across the country on a day-to-day basis. The tool maps air quality as a whole, however, so it includes far more pollutants and other contributors than carbon monoxide alone. Those east of the fires or in the surrounding areas can check the AirNow fires map to see whether the air quality in their location is acceptable or whether they should take precautions.

holy fire smoke
Smoke rises from a brushfire at the Holy Fire in Lake Elsinore, California, southeast of Los Angeles, on August 11. Carbon monoxide from the fires in California is making its way east across the United States. Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images