Impact of smoke from California’s wildfires spreads across the country

There are 20 active wildfires out west right now.

Massive smoke plumes billow out of California's wildfires. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory)
Massive smoke plumes billow out of California's wildfires. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

Startling satellite images have been released showing just how far the smoke from California’s numerous wildfires is spreading. The smoke has traveled 3,000 miles across the country, covering areas as far as New York City. And the wind may carry the toxic particles even farther east than that.

“The hotter a fire burns, the higher up smoke can go, and the farther it can spread,” explained Amber Soja, an atmospheric scientist with the National Institute of Aerospace who is based at NASA’s Langley Research Center. The fire season now runs almost year-round, with 2018 already worse than previous seasons.

For now, according to the weather service, the wildfire smoke on the east coast is a safe distance away — more than a mile above the surface. But should the smoke be pulled down by the jet stream, it might lead to unhealthy air.

But this isn’t the case for those living out west. Communities at the forefront of California’s wildfires are suffering prolonged exposure to dangerous air quality from the thick blanket of unrelenting smoke billowing out from the 20 active wildfires still raging in the west.

Officials have issued air-quality alerts in several states, with air pollution reaching highly dangerous levels earlier this week. Upper-level warnings — Code Orange, Code Red, and even Code Purple — have been issued. This means at the mid-range, Code Orange level, children, older adults, and those with respiratory problems must take precaution; all populations are at risk from very unhealthy air under Code Purple.


And in Oregon on Monday, air quality reached levels equal to the worst pollution days experienced in Beijing, the result of years of burning coal. “You really don’t want to be outside in those conditions,” Ryan Stauffer, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center told the Washington Post.

And things are only expected to get worse. Continued strong winds could potentially help fuel the fires with fresh oxygen, and will also push the dangerous smoke to new areas, putting millions more at risk.

Experts expect the Mendocino Complex fire — officially named the largest wildfire in California’s history — to continue burning for the rest of August. Historically, peak fire season didn’t begin until August or later, meaning California likely hasn’t seen the worst of this year’s fires and hazardous air quality problems won’t go away anytime soon.


The smoke from wildfires contains a dangerous combination of gases and fine particles released from the burning of wood and plants — this includes carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, organic carbon, and black carbon (better known as soot).

When inhaled, these microscopic particles can irritate the respiratory system, worsening lung and heart diseases. Asthma can develop or worsen and chest pain may be experienced. Eyes may be irritated and severe headaches could occur. For children, who may spend more time outdoors playing, it can be even more damaging, as their airways are still developing. They also breathe more air per body weight compared to adults.

The combination of the wildfires, which have been burning for weeks, with record-breaking temperatures means a lot of the smoke also lingers, remaining stagnant in some areas rather than dispersing and mixing out with fresh air.

Wildfires have been burning around the world this summer, from the U.S. and Canada to Sweden and Greece. And all of these fires come as the world is experiencing ongoing record-breaking temperatures and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

As science has shown, climate change is driving more extreme heat and drought — factors that make wildfires more frequent and severe. And while any single event can’t be attributed to climate change alone, the pattern of intense, destructive wildfires that we’re seeing is consistent with what scientists say can be expected from climate change.


Over the years, California has worked hard to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to tackle dangerous climate change. The devastating wildfires, however, may reverse that progress.

The fires are releasing enough carbon dioxide into the air to counter any progress made by the state’s climate policies. But long after the fires stop burning, scientists say carbon will continue to be released as the dead trees decay.