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Millions at Risk from Hazardous, Pervasive Smoke as West Coast Wildfires Blaze Away

09-16-2020
Image Source: (AP Photo/Noah Berger,File)
Image Source: (AP Photo/Noah Berger,File)

Millions of people are at risk from hazardous smoke as 79 wildfires continue to burn in 10 western states.    

Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco are now topping a global list of cities with the worst air quality.

The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning on Tuesday for parts of Northern California and Oregon, citing dangerous fire conditions made worse by wind and dry air.

In Portland, about one in every 10 hospitalizations are now due to poor air quality, and the smoke is even spreading coast to coast.

"It's difficult to tell at first who has COVID-19 and who has irritant from the pollution," said Dr. Peter Hakim, an emergency room doctor in Portland. "We're seeing a lot more people with productive coughs, dry coughs and shortness of breath." 

The wildfires are said to be the worst in 18 years. Scientists say thick smoke is now spreading, not only across America but even to Europe. 

Satellite images show the haze and smog reaching all the way to New York City.

"Even though we have a sunny and dry forecast coming up, don't be surprised if it's more of a milky sun or filtered sun," said Meteorologist Lee Goldberg.

And NASA reports that carbon monoxide levels are also increasing as a result of the fires.

"The intense heat from the wildfires lofted the carbon monoxide high into the atmosphere, enabling detection by the AIRS instrument," NASA reports. "Released by the fires along with smoke and ash, carbon monoxide is a pollutant that can persist in the atmosphere for about a month and can be transported great distances. At the high altitude mapped in these images, the gas has little effect on the air we breathe; however, strong winds can carry it downwards to where it can significantly impact air quality."

Dramatic video recorded on a firefighter's helmet in California revealed how fast fire can overwhelm someone, engulf a home, and melt cars.

The deadly fires have burned about five million acres with tens of thousands forced to flee their homes.

Meanwhile, at least 36 people have died in the fires.

In Northern California, two sisters became trapped as flames from the fire quickly approached them. One did not survive and the other sister is still missing.

"What they didn't know is that there is a wall of flame moving at them at over 1,000 yards an hour. I don't think they understood that," said family member Zygy Roe-Zurz. 

The CDC warns that wildfire smoke is a combination of gases and fine particles from burning vegetation, building materials, and other materials. 

The smoke is dangerous to everyone, but older adults, pregnant women, children, and people with respiratory and heart conditions may be more likely to become sick.

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