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Midwesterners Are Breathing Smoky Air From California Wildfires, New Research Shows

 Wildfires in California are on the rise. Now a new investigation shows how those blazes are affecting the air in the Midwest.
Wildfires in California are on the rise. Now a new investigation shows how those blazes are affecting the air in the Midwest.

Health and meteorology experts say the growing presence of wildfire smoke in parts of Kansas and Nebraska could pose health risks to those who breathe it in. That concern is compounded, given the likelihood that vast and intense fires from California and surrounding areas will persist.

Blood-red sunsets in the Midwest are striking but ominous illustrations of new data: Parts of the Midwest are being exposed to more wildfire smoke from the West Coast and Canada compared to more than a decade ago. Experts say the impact of the smoke on health in the region is a concern.

Meteorological patterns — weather, air currents, fronts — sweep wildfire smoke hundreds of miles across the country. Nowhere in the Midwest is this increased exposure to wildfire smoke more pronounced than in western Nebraska.

Take the case of Scottsbluff, a city of about 15,000 in Nebraska’s panhandle. From 2016 to 2020, residents of Scottsbluff breathed smoke 52 days a year on average. That’s a 45% increase from just a few years earlier, 2009 to 2013, when California wildfires were less common.

On Sept. 17, 2020, Scottsbluff exceeded the concentration of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) air quality standards for particulate matter — tiny pieces of debris from smoke and combustion that’s suspended in the air. That was a result of smoke sweeping into western Nebraska from wildfires in the western U.S.

Western and central Kansas also saw meaningful increases in smoke days, according to a data analysis conducted by NPR California Newsroom and the Stanford University Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab.

“Although we see variability from year to year, the trend appears to be increasing impacts of smoke across Kansas over the last several years,” said Matt Lara, a spokesman with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in an email.

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Lara said the effect from smoke may be mostly in the upper atmosphere, causing hazy skies and dramatic sunsets. He added that sometimes, such as late July and early August this year, federal air standards for daily particulate matter are exceeded.

Health and meteorology experts say the growing presence of wildfire smoke in parts of Kansas and Nebraska could pose health risks to those who breathe it in. That concern is compounded, given the likelihood that vast and intense fires from California and surrounding areas will persist.

“All the science — and there’s a lot of science on this — suggests if we don’t change our game on this, people should expect this to get worse,” said Marshall Burke, associate professor in Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science, who helped NPR’s California Newsroom assemble its smoke data. “It’s going to be worse in the West, but it’s certainly going to get worse in the Midwest as well as more people are exposed to smoke from fires in the West.”

The analysis relied on satellite images captured every few hours by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that showed plumes of smoke billowing into the atmosphere from western wildfires. Those images were then plotted over nearly every zip code across the continental United States to show the areas where the wildfire smoke reaches.

In California and more broadly along the West Coast, the growing frequency and intensity of wildfire pose clear air quality and health risks.

The NPR California Newsroom analysis also examined data from state health facilities and found there were 30,000 more hospitalizations from cardiac and respiratory conditions in 2018, then a record year for wildfires, than just two years before.

Shawn Jacobs, the warning coordination meteorologist at the North Platte National Weather Service office, said that the climate in central and western Nebraska may play a role in how smoke is distributed in the region. The state’s climate becomes more arid west of Kearney, Nebraska, and the lack of moisture allows for greater temperature swings. More fluctuation means more movement, preventing the smoke from settling, Jacobs said. These trends are being noticed by western Nebraskans.

“So much so that there are times when people have called us and asked, ‘Is there a fire nearby?’ because we’re seeing this smoke,” Jacobs said.

Colleen Reid, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado who studies the health impacts of wildfire smoke, said the health effects are clear when there are high concentrations of smoke in the air.

That risk arises from tiny particles that are so small they get deep into the lungs of those who breathe it in and some can pass into the bloodstream.

The particulate matter can lead to asthma, cardiovascular problems and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“In terms of the Midwest where you’re getting the smoke transmitted long distances, there needs to be more research to understand whether the long-range transport changes the way it affects health,” Reid said.

Iowa and Missouri have not experienced the type of increase in smoke days seen in Kansas and Nebraska.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been wildfire smoke over Iowa and Missouri. In Iowa, there are on average 57 smoke days a year from 2016 to 2020, about even from the 2009 to 2013 time period. In Missouri, the average number of smoke days a year actually dropped slightly, from 52 in the initial period to 51 from 2016 to 2020.

Wide swaths of northwest Missouri had modest increases in exposure to smoke, but many areas of the state — including St. Louis and most of St. Louis County — had decreases in smoke days during the two periods analyzed by the NPR California Newsroom and Stanford.

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Iowa’s western edge, particularly in border cities like Mondamin and Blencoe, saw an increase in smoke days between 7% and 12% from the 2009-2013 time period and 2016-2020.

But further east, in cities like Ames and most of Des Moines, saw decreases in smoke days.

The presence of wildfire smoke does not often exceed EPA standards for air quality in the Midwest, and it has never been enough to result in a violation of the Clean Air Act's National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Even so, EPA officials keep an eye on wildfire smoke migrating from the west to the Midwest.

“It is something that is on our radar; it’s a concern,” said Lance Avey, an air and radiation division meteorologist for the EPA’s Region 7, which covers Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

Doug Norsby, air quality planner with the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), said that while the occurrence of poor air quality days in the Kansas City region from wildfire smoke are infrequent, the presence of particulate matter from smoke is an issue that has captured the organization’s attention.

“I would say it’s a flashing warning light on our mental dashboard,” said Norsby.

In early August, MARC warned Kansas City residents to limit outdoor activity. That’s after wildfire smoke from Canada swept into the region.

The EPA is currently evaluating particulate matter from wildfire smoke and other sources to determine whether it should change its air quality standards. That review happens every five years.

Experts said two main causes have triggered the increase in wildfires along the West Coast, Canada and the Rockies. One is the tendency to extinguish small fires that, if allowed to burn, would clear acres of leaf litter and dead wood. Without those smaller fires, dry leaves and wood ignites and leads to the more intense and out-of-control fires that have plagued California and other western states in recent years.

“The Smokey The Bear campaign has been really successful,” said Marshall Burke, associate professor in Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science. “What do we do when a fire starts? We put them out.”

In much of the Southeastern United States, where academic research shows prescribed burns are far more common, NPR California Newsroom’s investigation shows a substantial decline in wildfire smoke over the past decade.

Burke said California should carry out prescribed burns — also known as controlled burns — on more than 1 million acres of land in California each year.

“We’re not doing anything close to that,” Burke said.

Reduced rainfall and rising temperatures from climate change also make for stronger wildfires.

Those blood-red sunsets are a telltale sign of smoke in the air.

Eric James, a University of Colorado scientist working at NOAA's Global Systems Lab,

said large fires from the west pump smoke into the upper atmosphere that enters the jet stream and can travel across the continental United States.

“We see this most years, this long-range transport of smoke,” James said “It has gotten more intense in the last few years from what we’ve seen.”

The Midwest has the occasional wildfire, as well as controlled burns in places like the Flint Hills in Kansas. But James said most of the wildfire smoke in the Midwest is attributed to western blazes.

“I think the majority of the impact is from these large forest fires in the Pacific coastal states, Colorado and the intermountain west,” James said.

This article is the result of a collaboration with the NPR California Newsroom, which conducted an analysis of federal satellite imagery, and Stanford University’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab.

Based at St. Louis Public Radio, Steve Vockrodt is the Midwest Newsroom’s investigative editor. You can follow him on Twitter @stevevockrodt.

Based at Nebraska Public Media, Daniel Wheaton is the Midwest Newsroom’s data journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @theheroofthyme.

The Midwest Newsroom is an investigative journalism collaboration including KCUR, IPR, Nebraska Public Media and St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.