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Fires are raging on the West Coast of the US

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
September 12, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 35


Credit: Katherine Bourzac/C&EN
View from the home of a San Francisco-based C&EN reporter

California is burning. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of land are scorching because of wildfires that are raging across the state and further to the north, into Oregon and Washington State. The fires are of such size and intensity that they are contributing to worsening weather conditions, fueling their own growth in a devastating vicious circle.

Echoing media coverage of the fires, C&EN staff on the West Coast have been sharing with our virtual newsroom daily updates and images of what the sky looks like from their homes. The photos show orange skies in a number of locations, including San Francisco, Oakland, and surrounding areas. In most cases, the smoke and ash cut out the sunlight, and there’s no telling what time of day it is. The images are striking but surreal. Apocalyptic.

C&EN staff have also shared images of cars and other property covered with a dusting of soot from the fires. The poor air quality is a constant health threat because of the presence of chemicals such as carbon monoxide, and, importantly, due to the abundance of particulate matter that goes deep into the lungs and can exacerbate existing lung or heart conditions. In some areas along the West Coast, the air quality has been categorized as hazardous, which, according to a recent report in Vox, makes breathing the air equivalent to smoking 12 cigarettes in a day.

And that is just the beginning. In addition to the immediate damage to human health and wildlife, which will take years to recover, water quality may also be affected because of “urban burn” and a complex mixture of metals, chemicals from the air, and other toxic compoundsfinding its way into water bodies nearby.

This devastation by fire is not good at any time, of course, but it comes at a particularly difficult period, when we are already facing lockdown because of a global pandemic, an economic recession like we haven’t experienced in decades, and a moment of social reckoning catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd.

We are behind you, California, Oregon, and Washington.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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