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    Air Pollution Dog Blog — wildfire smoke

    California is Not Burning Yet, And This is Good News!

    California is Not Burning Yet, And This is Good News!

    The good news today is California is not burning, yet. At least not as much as it has in recent years. Acreage burned through Sunday is down 90% compared to the average over the past five years and down 95% from last year, according to statistics from the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

    The stats are good news for a state that has seen terrifyingly destructive and deadly blazes the past two years, but the worst of those fires occurred in the fall.

    California Drought Meter 2019

    The precipitous drop could be due to the amount of precipitation the state received during a winter of near-record snowfall and cooler-than-average temperatures — so far.

    Scott McLean, a spokesman for CalFire, said the state hasn’t dried out as quickly this year and the temperatures haven’t been as consistently hot. Hot spells have been followed by cooler weather and winds haven’t been strong.

    “It’s a roller coaster with temperatures this year,” McLean said. “There have been very little winds so far. We’re crossing all fingers and appendages.”

    The most current U.S. Drought Monitor map released last week shows only a tiny portion of California listed as abnormally dry. A year ago, almost the entire state was listed in a range from abnormally dry to extreme drought.

    Even after another very wet year in 2017 when Gov. Jerry Brown declared the end to a years-long drought, hot weather quickly sapped vegetation of moisture and nearly 4,000 fires had already burned more than 350 square miles (906 square kilometers) at this time of year. In October 2017, fast-moving, wind-driven blazes in Northern California killed 44 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

    California Wildfires Are Not Burning in 2019, Yet

    Last year began with less rainfall and a smaller snowpack and the state dried out even faster with more dire the consequences. It was the worst fire year in state history in both acreage and deaths with the Camp Fire in November wiping out the town of Paradise, destroying nearly 15,000 homes and killing 86 people. At the same time, a Southern California wildfire burned across the Santa Monica Mountains and destroyed more than 1,500 structures.

    CalFire has fought fires on 38 square miles (98 square kilometers) this year, down from an average of 416 square miles (1,077 square kilometers) from 2014-18.

    Through the same date last year, a total of nearly 4,000 fires had burned more than 970 square miles (2,512 square kilometers). The number of fires this year, about 3,400, is only down about 15% from last year, meaning the fires are much smaller.

    Typically, 95% of the fires CalFire fights are smaller than 10 acres and “boy are we living up to that,” McLean said. The state’s figures don’t compare data on fires on all federal lands, which account for about 45 percent of the state’s acreage.

    Fires on U.S. Forest Service land this year, however, have also declined. To date, only 41 square miles have burned in national forests, compared to 350 square miles at this time last year, according to fire officials.

    2019 Wildfire Season is Late: Dry Locations at Breaking Point Now

    2019 Wildfire Season is Late: Dry Locations at Breaking Point Now

    California’s wildfire season is starting late this year, according to fire scientist Tom Rolinski, who monitors fuel conditions for Southern California Edison. But the late start is no indication of a mild fire season ahead.

    “There was a slow ramp-up to fire season this year," Rolinski said. "The fuel moistures we are currently seeing are more typical of early July.” An unusually wet winter that yielded a super bloom, combined with a mild spring that kept vegetation wet, meant any fires did not consume a lot of acreage, Rolinski said. Recent above average temperatures are to blame for drying out plants, creating good fuels for wildfires.

    Wildfire Experts Tracking 2019 Fire and Smoke Hazards

    “We’re at a breaking point now,” Rolinski said. With the use of a specialized oven in an Edison lab in Westminster, a team measures how much water is present in live plants sampled from around their service area. Rolinski told the Desert Sun the average last week had dipped to roughly 80 percent, the threshold at which it becomes more susceptible for combustion.

    Fire season does not have a fixed calendar date, depending instead on a combination of weather factors. While it generally starts in mid-May and lasts until mid-November, the amount of rain in the preceding and following seasons changes its span year to year. The National Interagency Fire Center, which helps to coordinate fire resources across the country, calculates a Fire Potential Product to estimate the severity of fire hazard conditions, an index used by a variety of agencies including Cal Fire.

    August 2019 Potential WilfFire Hazard Hot Spots

    Last week, the NIFC elevated its national preparedness level from two to three out of a maximum of five, partially because of elevated Fire Potential Product levels. Of the 117 incidents recorded by Cal Fire that have burned 43,362 acres across the state this year to date, 39 have been large, slightly below the 10-year average.

    Rolinski also pointed out that the first fire large enough to merit the deployment of an incident management team occurred in the last week of July this year, in Los Padres National Forest. Last year, that happened nearly a month earlier.

    Of the 87 large wildland fires currently burning across the U.S., two of those are in California, both in Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties. According to NIFC’s National Wildland Fire Potential Outlook published last week, the month of August will see the largest geographic area under high wildfire potential risk at any given time this year in the United States, mostly concentrated across California, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii.

    New Animal Research for Wildfire Smoke

    New Animal Research for Wildfire Smoke

    Smoke from California’s deadliest wildfires last November blurred the sky as the air became among the world’s most polluted. The Camp Fire has long since been extinguished, but the health effects from the tiny particulate matter in the smoke, which penetrates into the lungs and ultimately into the bloodstream, could linger for years. No one is surprised when smoke brings a surge of emergency room visits for asthma or other breathing problems.

    Researcher for Vulnerability in Children

    More insidiously, people are also inhaling noxious fine particles measuring less than 2.5 microns, or a fifth the size of a particle of dust or pollen. Researchers have had a hard time quantifying exposure to those tiny particles as a smoky plume moves through an area or just how harmful the bursts of such air can be.

    But recent work suggests that children and babies are particularly vulnerable to long-lasting health effects. A new study found exposure to high levels of that tiny particulate matter, abbreviated as PM2.5, impairs the immune system of children.

    The Stanford University researchers tested the blood of 36 children exposed to wildfire smoke blown into Fresno in 2015 and found changes in a gene involved in the development and function of T cells, an important component of the immune system. The alteration made the gene less capable of producing T regulatory cells, potentially putting the children at greater risk of developing allergies or infection. “T regulatory cells act as peacekeepers in your immune system and keep everything on an even keel,” says Mary Prunicki, an allergy researcher and lead author. “You have fewer of these good, healthy immune cells around when you’re exposed to a lot of air pollution.”

    The smoke-exposed Fresno children also had significantly fewer Th1 cells, another component of the immune response, when compared with unexposed kids. Controlled fires to clear out underbrush, known as prescribed burns, also can cause health effects. Thirty-two children exposed to smoke from prescribed burns had immune changes, too, but the effect wasn’t as strong as it was for children exposed to wildfire smoke, the study showed.

    The research did not follow those children to see if their altered immune systems led to worse health outcomes, but an ongoing study at the University of California, Davis, raises some similar concerns.

    Animal Research for Wildfire Smoke Inhalation

    This one focused on rhesus macaques that live in an outdoor enclosure at the California National Primate Research Center. Rhesus monkeys give birth in the spring, so when wildfire smoke blew over the center in June and July of 2008, baby monkeys were exposed to 10 days of PM2.5 that exceeded the 24-hour air quality standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

    At three years of age (adolescents, by monkey standards), researchers examined 50 monkeys that had been exposed to wildfire smoke. They produced less of an immune-related protein (interleukin 6 or 8), as compared to monkeys not exposed to smoke as babies. That protein triggers inflammation to fight pathogens.

    A closer examination of the genes of a subset of these adolescent monkeys revealed immune-related genetic changes as well. “Clearly, the toxicants in air pollution are having a permanent effect on the DNA of immune cells,” says Lisa A. Miller, principal investigator and an immunologist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s a change that stays with that cell for its entire life.”

    The responses appears to be specific to youngsters: Miller and her team did not see significant immune changes among monkeys exposed to smoke as adults. Though the altered immune systems have not led the monkeys to have more infections, all the smoke-exposed monkeys had “very profound changes” in lung structure and reduced lung function, Miller says.

    Now almost 10 years old, the monkeys still show the same immune changes. Smoke-exposed females have even passed on some of those changes to their offspring. The monkey research isn’t completely transferable to people. For starters, the monkeys live outdoors, so they breathe the smoke as long as it lingers in the air. But taken together, the two studies suggest that tiny particulate matter doesn’t only affect the lungs. “It points researchers in a direction of investigating the effects of wildfire smoke on the immune system. It’s an important pathway to consider,” says Colleen Reid of the University of Colorado Boulder, where she researches health effects of wildfire smoke. She was not involved in the studies.

    Health Risks of Global Climate Change

    As global climate change fuels larger and more severe wildfires, the potential health risks magnify. In 2008, the monkeys were exposed to a maximum PM2.5 level of 78 micrograms per cubic meter of air; on November 16, 2018, that air quality measure in downtown Sacramento hit 427. “Many cities in the West saw their highest-ever particulate levels in 2017 and 2018,” says Dan Jaffe, an environmental chemist at the University of Washington-Bothell. He and his colleagues reported that large urban effect in a paper released earlier this month.

    “More than 10 million people were exposed to levels of PM2.5 above the air quality standards.” The National Interagency Fire Center predicts an “above normal” potential for wildfires this summer for Northern California. People can take precautions to limit their exposure when wildfire smoke blankets their area. Some cities provide “clear air centers” as a wildfire version of the evacuation shelters used during hurricanes. The best strategy, of course, is to prevent or limit the spread of wildfires. In the meantime, deciphering their toll on human health has become an urgent priority.

    Wildfire smoke affect on dogs needing air pollution filter mask

    Protecting Dogs From Smoke Inhalation

    Smoke inhalation is not only dangerous for people - it can also have very serious consequences for dogs. Across parts of California including areas not in the path of the wild fires, air quality is being ranked as some of the worst in the world. As firefighters battle the wild fires animal welfare groups are working around the clock to rescue dogs. 

    Smoke Inhalation in Dogs

    Dr. Tina Wismer the Medical Director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center explains that, “With smoke inhalation, the amount of smoke a dog is exposed to will affect the symptoms. Animals that are caught in a fire can have difficulty breathing, inflammation and burns in the airways, and weakness. In some cases, dogs may initially appear normal and then develop a buildup of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) up to 24 hours later.”

    Dogs in wildfire smoke poor air qualityShe further explains that dogs living near wildfires and breathing smoke may also experience eye irritation. Your dog may experience watery or red eyes, coughing, runny noses and panting if exposed to wildfire smoke. Dr. Heather B. Loenser, DVM Senior Veterinary Officer of the American Animal Hospital Association, also encourages dog guardians in smoke impacted areas to be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

    • Rapid respiratory rate (breathing more than 20-30 breaths per minute a rest)
    • Coughing; strained or noisy breathing
    • Bright red gums
    • Lethargy, seizures.

    Impact of Long-Term Smoke Inhalation in Dogs

    Although some symptoms of smoke inhalation are visible right away, dogs who have been exposed to smoke may get sick some time after the exposure. Jordan Holliday from Embrace Pet Insurance explains that, “once your pet has been rescued from a fire, he or she may appear pretty normal. Unfortunately, initial appearances can be deceiving. Even if your dogs didn’t come into contact with fire and get burned, they may have severe internal issues that need to be addressed.”

    Holliday cautions, “The most common cause of fire-related deaths in pets is not skin damage from burns, but organ damage from carbon monoxide toxicity. During a fire, carbon monoxide replaces the oxygen in the air. When a pet breathes carbon monoxide instead of oxygen, his organs will not be able to function correctly.” This is why it’s so important any dogs being rescued from wild fire impacted areas are seen by veterinarians.

    How To Minimize the Risk: Smoke Exposure for Dogs

    The most important thing you can do if your dog has been exposed to smoke is to get them out of the situation as soon as possible. If your dog has any of the above symptoms of smoke toxicity, Dr. Loenser advises you to get your dog seen by a veterinarian to receive oxygen therapy. Dr. Loesner explains that veterinary hospitals have oxygen cages that allow (all but the largest) dogs to rest in an oxygen-rich environment.

    Dogs need air pollution filter masks for wildfire smokeGiant dogs that are too large for the oxygen cages can be provided oxygen therapy through a nasal cannula with allows oxygen to flow into a dog’s nose. “Treating a dog with oxygen is one of my favorite treatments because I love seeing the look of relief when they realize they can breathe easier,” says Dr. Loesner. Here is a video example of a dog receiving oxygen therapy from the Castlegar Fire Department in British Columbia, Canada. animal medical center ny oxygen therapy. Dogs being rescued by first responders are increasingly being treated with oxygen therapy on the scene, but Dr. Loenser advises that any dogs rescued from wildfires or any other fire should be directed to a veterinarian within an hour of being rescued.

    Caring For Dogs in Poor Air Quality Conditions

    If you are living in an area where air quality conditions are poor, the best thing you can do is to keep your dog inside as much as possible. Limiting the length and frequency of walks and staying out of outdoor spaces like dog parks is advised until air quality improves. Trick training or Scent Work games are a great way to keep your dog mentally and physically exercised in your house or apartment. Humans in areas impacted by wildfires are being encouraged to wear face masks or respirators to minimize the risks associated with breathing smoke. There are a few different masks on the market for dogs such as Dog Pollution Mask, and goggles like these from Doggles that may reduce eye irritation from the smoke. Unfortunately, unlike masks for people these masks are less readily available.

    Which dogs need air filter muzzle masks?Having just moved with my dogs from New York to Oregon (which in recent years has had more issues with wildfires like neighboring Northern California), I am considering buying air pollution masks for my dogs.  Don't do this after a wildfire in your area. Of course, this means once I have the K9 dog pollution masks, I’ll need to begin slowly desensitizing my dogs to wearing them. If an air quality emergency were to occur, my dogs need to already comfortable with wearing and breathing through something on their faces – a sensation that might feel strange to anyone.

    Which Dogs Are at Risk for Complications from Smoke Exposure

    Smoke inhalation is dangerous for all dogs regardless of breed or age, but there are specific concerns with some breeds. Dr. Loenser explains that dogs with short noses - bulldogs, pugs and Boston terriers, to name a few - are especially at risk. Additionally, Loesner explains that very young and very old dogs of any breed can be more fragile and at risk for medical complications from smoke inhalation.

    Being Prepared

    The wildfires in California are a good reminder about the importance of having an evacuation plan for your family including all your dogs. Natural disasters can strike at any time and it’s important to be prepared. Make sure your dog is wearing a collar with updated identification tags. In your vehicle it’s a good idea to have easily accessible digital copies of proof of vaccination, photos of your dog (in case they become lost), spare leashes, food, and any prescriptions your dog might need.

    Jordan Holliday advises to, when developing an evacuation plan, have a designated person in your household responsible for evacuating the dog. If no one is able to get your dog(s) out, this person needs to, “let the fire department personnel know that he or she is still inside the home. Have your pet microchipped so that in the event your pet is able to escape, you can find him or her after the fire. Place a sticker or identification in the window of your home so that fire department personnel know there is a pet in the home if a fire breaks out when you aren’t there.”

    Long Term Health After the California Wildfire Smoke

    Long Term Health After the California Wildfire Smoke

    Air pollution masks. Liquid eye drops. Don't go outdoors. This is how Californians are trying to cope with wildfires choking the state, but experts say an increase in serious health problems may be almost inevitable for vulnerable residents as the disasters become more commonplace. Research suggests children, the elderly and those with existing health problems are most at risk.

    Short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can worsen existing asthma and lung disease, leading to emergency room treatment or hospitalization, studies have shown. Increases in doctor visits or hospital treatment for respiratory infections, bronchitis and pneumonia in otherwise healthy people also have been found during and after wildfires.

    Some studies also have found increases in ER visits for heart attacks and strokes in people with existing heart disease on heavy smoke days during previous California wildfires, echoing research on potential risks from urban air pollution. For most healthy people, exposure to wildfire smoke is just an annoyance, causing burning eyes, scratchy throats or chest discomfort that all disappear when the smoke clears.

    California fires in malibu 2018

    But doctors, scientists and public health officials are concerned that the changing face of wildfires will pose a much broader health hazard. “Wildfire season used to be June to late September. Now it seems to be happening all year round. We need to be adapting to that,” Dr. Wayne Cascio, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cardiologist, said this week.

    In an overview published earlier this year, Cascio wrote that the increasing frequency of large wildland fires, urban expansion into wooded areas and an aging population are all increasing the number of people at risk for health problems from fires. Wood smoke contains some of the same toxic chemicals as urban air pollution, along with tiny particles of vapor and soot 30 times thinner than a human hair.

    These can infiltrate the bloodstream, potentially causing inflammation and blood vessel damage even in healthy people, research on urban air pollution has shown. Studies have linked heart attacks and cancer with long-term exposure to air pollution. Whether exposure to wildfire smoke carries the same risks is uncertain, and determining harm from smog versus wildfire smoke can be tricky, especially with wind-swept California wildfires spreading thick smoke hundreds of miles away into smoggy big cities.

    California Camp Fires

    “That is the big question,” said Dr. John Balmes, a University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine who studies air pollution. “Very little is known about the long-term effects of wildfire smoke because it’s hard to study populations years after a wildfire,” Balmes said. Decreased lung function has been found in healthy firefighters during fire season.

    They tend to recover but federal legislation signed this year will establish a U.S. registry tracking firefighters and potential risks for various cancers, including lung cancer. Some previous studies suggested a risk. Balmes noted that increased lung cancer rates have been found in women in developing countries who spend every day cooking over wood fires. That kind of extreme exposure doesn’t typically happen with wildfires, but experts worry about the kinds of health damage that may emerge for firefighters and residents with these blazes occurring so often.

    Whether that includes more cancer is unknown. “We’re concerned about that,” Balmes said. Regular folks breathing in all that smoke worry about the risks too. Smoke from the fire that decimated the Northern California city of Paradise darkened skies this week in San Francisco, nearly 200 miles southwest, and the air smelled “like you were camping,” said Michael Northover, a contractor.

    He and his 14-year-old son have first-time sinus infections that Northover blames on the smoke. “We’re all kind of feeling it,” Northover said. At Chico State University, 11 miles from Paradise, ash was falling this week and classes were canceled until after Thanksgiving. “It’s kind of freaky to see your whole town wearing air masks and trying to get out of smoke,” said freshman Mason West, 18. “You can see the particles. Obviously it’s probably not good to be breathing that stuff in.”

    West returned home this week to Santa Rosa, hard hit by last year’s wine country fire, only to find it shrouded in smoke from the Paradise fire 100 miles away. West’s family had to evacuate last year for a week but their home was spared. “It’s as bad here as it was in Chico,” West said. “It almost feels like you just can’t get away from it.”

    Smoke has been so thick in Santa Rosa that researchers postponed a door-to-door survey there for a study of health effects of last year’s fire. “We didn’t feel we could justify our volunteer interns going knocking on doors when all the air quality alerts were saying stay indoors,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a public health researcher at the University of California, Davis.

    The study includes an online survey of households affected by last year’s fire, with responses from about 6,000 people so far. Preliminary data show widespread respiratory problems, eye irritations, anxiety, depression and sleep problems around the time of the fire and months later. “Conventional thinking is that these effects related to fires are transient. It’s not entirely clear that’s the case,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

    Researchers also will be analyzing cord blood and placentas collected from a few dozen women who were pregnant during the fire, seeking evidence of stress markers or exposure to smoke chemicals. They hope to continue the study for years, seeking evidence of long-term physical and emotional harms to fire evacuees and their children.

    Other studies have linked emotional stress in pregnant women to developmental problems in their children and “this was quite a stress,” Hertz-Picciotto said. It’s a kind of stress that many people need to prepare for as the climate warms and wildfires proliferate, she said. “Any of us could wake up tomorrow and lose everything we own,” she said. “It’s pretty scary.”

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