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Wildfire Smoke Blanketed US Midwest Last Year

Wildfire smoke is linked to significant increases in hospitalizations, long-term illnesses.



Areas that experienced heavy wildfire smoke exposure in 2021. (Direct Relief)

Much of the US Midwest, in addition to the Mountain West and West Coast, faced at least seven days of heavy wildfire smoke in 2020 and 2021, according to a new analysis by Direct Relief’s Research and Analysis team. Additionally, In 2021, heavy wildfire smoke covered eastern Maryland, all of Rhode Island, and eastern Connecticut for at least seven days.

Through August 22 this year, far less of the lower 48 states have seen a week’s worth of heavy wildfire smoke. However, last month alone, an estimated 1.44 million people across the US experienced seven or more days of heavy-density wildfire smoke in parts of Texas, California, New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Alaska.

Notable cities and census-designated places (CDPs) under such conditions include Amarillo, Texas, McLean, Texas, the Klamath area in California, and Tucumcari, NM 71 cities and CDPs in Alaska have also seen at least seven heavy smoke days, including Fairbanks.

Map displays areas that experienced heavy wildfire smoke exposure in 2020 (Direct Relief).
Map displays areas that experienced heavy wildfire smoke exposure in 2021. (Direct Relief)
Map displays areas that experienced heavy wildfire smoke exposure from January 1, 2022, to August 22, 2022. (Direct Relief)

The data from 2020 and 2021 suggest that more research and outreach are needed for wildfire smoke risks for people throughout the US.

“It’s interesting to look at the Midwest in particular, not just in terms of tornadoes and flooding, but to also add air quality [from smoke] on top of that … that last piece just doesn’t seem to be on a lot of people’s radar,” said Michael Robinson, Crisis Mapping and Data Science Specialist at Direct Relief, who analyzed smoke data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

According to NOAA, “heavy” smoke density refers to the thickness of smoke observed in satellite imagery. Heavy smoke density is intended to approximate 21-32 micrograms per cubic meter.

Another possible contributing factor to the increase in US wildfire smoke last year might have been Mexico’s wildfires. According to Robinson, who holds a Ph.D. in geography, atmospheric circulation transports smoke from wildfires and, in 2021, the smoke from Mexico’s worst wildfire season in more than ten years would likely have contributed to the increased smoke coverage in the southwest United States.

Analysis by Direct Relief of this year’s smoke data showed that most of Mexico’s Gulf Coast and most of its southern Pacific coast had had multiple weeks of at least medium smoke. “Medium” smoke density is meant to approximate between 10-21 micrograms per cubic meter.

Wildfire smoke has been linked to “significant” increases, within a day or two of the event, in hospital emergency departments. The most vulnerable populations to wildfire smoke include children and people with respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

Illnesses associated with prolonged and repeated exposure to polluted air, both wildfire smoke and traffic-related pollution, include deficits in lung function, asthma, allergies, chronic obstructed pulmonary disease, and altered immunology.

Michael Robinson, Crisis Mapping and Data Science Specialist at Direct Relief, contributed to this article.

Direct Relief responds each year to wildfires throughout the Western US, including in its home state of California, providing N-95 masks, medicine, and other resources to healthcare agencies and first responders.

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