The wildfires terrorizing the West aren’t going away, but good reporting can help

Published on
September 22, 2020

Many of us on the West Coast have been locked indoors for the past couple weeks.

It’s not COVID-19 this time. It’s the smoke from wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington that are making the air outside dangerously unhealthy. How unhealthy? In Portland recently, the air quality index measure provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was listed at 516 — that’s “Beyond Index,” which runs from 1 to 350. The air quality was listed as “hazardous,” with a visibility of only 109 yards. Imagine standing behind the goal posts on a football field and not being able to see the other goal posts.

Year after year we have seen fires kill people, destroy properties, and spread smoke far beyond the fire zone. In 2018, more than 100 people were killed in wildfires in California alone, when the Sierra foothill town of Paradise was engulfed by the deadliest blaze in state history. This year the death toll stands at 33 in the West as of this writing. For years, too, we have heard from experts that climate change was only going to make the problem worse. But what are we doing to lower the risk?

Just as COVID-19 has led to rapid experimentation with treatments and policy options to curb the spread of the disease, perhaps governments at the federal, state and local level need to be experimenting now to find the policy options that will better prevent fires in the future and better handle the fires when they are started. To get us there, reporters can help us understand what has happened — and what hasn’t — over the past two decades. Here are three important questions you can ask to develop that understanding for your audience.

What is causing all of these fires? You can start with the National Wildfire Reporting Group’s database on Federal Wildland Fire Occurrences. It runs from 1980 to 2016. If you are comfortable working with data, you can download truly a ton of detailed information about wildfires here. The service has been discontinued, unfortunately, and so you will have to contact individual agencies to pick up the thread. Seek out information on causes. We hear anecdotally about fireworks or campfires or arson. Ask the basics: who, what, where, when, and how? Then try to group fires by causes, which in turn will help you examine policies. Meanwhile, familiarize yourself with the longer history of fire management in your area. In California, centuries of regular fires were replaced by intense fire suppression and ultimately, fare more destructive megafires further fueled by climate change.

What is the health toll? At one point during this latest run of wildfires, the air in Portland was declared the most polluted in the world. That’s a pretty stunning fact given some of the major air pollution problems in countries with lower air quality standards than the U.S. This is especially bad for people who are homeless and can’t escape the smoke indoors. It’s also bad for everyone who is exposed to the smoke over long periods of time, and for people with conditions that make them prone to complications from the particulate matter.

There are three key studies that have been published in recent years that you can use as touchstones for your own reporting. One study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology by Jia Coco Liu at Johns Hopkins University and colleagues found that emergency room admissions went up when smoke levels were high, and that the elderly, especially older Black populations, were disproportionately affected. Talk to the researchers from that study and find out how you might extrapolate those numbers to the populations affected by the fires over a longer period of time and in the years since the study.

Another study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association looked at more than 1 million emergency room visits in California during the 2015 wildfire season and found higher rates of admissions due to cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory diseases. “As wildfire season intensity and duration is projected to increase in California, understanding adverse health impacts of wildfire smoke and identifying the most susceptible populations is relevant to a broad group of stakeholders, including state and local officials responsible for land and air quality management, environmental scientists, policy makers, public health officials, and frontline public health and healthcare practitioners,” wrote lead author Zachary S. Wettstein of UC San Francisco and colleagues.

Again, talk with the authors and see if there is a way for you to gather your own data on emergency room visits and build on the authors’ analysis to do your own assessment of how many people are being sent to the emergency room because of the fires.

The third study can help you forecast for your audience what may be yet to come amid COVID-19. Published in the journal Environment International this past June, the study found that higher amounts of air pollution in Montana “during the wildfire season positively associated with increased influenza in Montana counties in the following winter flu season.”

What is being done (or not being done) to reduce the threat from fires? This is the big question and the one that is most valuable for you to answer. It cost $2.4 billion for the federal government to fight fires in 2017. The question of how to reduce the number or severity of fires is so big and so unwieldy that you likely will want to focus on just one or a handful of the causes that you find when you are digging into the answers to the first question. One of the biggest drivers appears to be the high number of dead trees and accumulated vegetation on forest land, providing a big backlog of ready fuel for any spark. Fire suppression policies throughout the West have made the problem even worse. In December 2017, the U.S. Forest Service reported that there were a record 129 million dead trees in California forests alone.

In that same announcement in 2017, the agency set out a plan: “from public workshops about reforestation, public outreach in urban and rural areas, and awarding over $21 million in grants aimed to protect watersheds, remove dead trees and restore our forests.” If forest management is your focus, that can become your checklist. How many public workshops were held and to what end? What was the “outreach” intended to do and did it accomplish anything? Where did that $21 million in grants get spent? Did selective thinning or prescribed burns take place in a given area? Ultimately, the biggest question should be, were trees removed or controlled burns allowed in the same forests being ravaged by wildfires now?

If you are sick of breathing smoke and worried about the health effects on your audience, start trying to answer these questions now. And think about which policies might prevent these apocalyptic scenes in the future.