For two weeks after Camp Fire ignited, the air in Northern California, reaching as far as 200 miles from the flames, was so full of smoke that it was deemed unhealthy to breathe, especially for people with heart and respiratory ailments.
But those immediate health problems are just the beginning of effects that could plague people from Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay Area long after the smoke clears. An analysis of hospital data by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that emergency room visits surged several months after last year’s wildfires was extinguished.
Medical experts say these findings raise troubling questions about the long-term health effects of wildfires.
Three to five months after the 37,000-acre Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma valleys in October 2017, the region’s emergency rooms treated about 20 percent more patients for respiratory and cardiac ailments compared with previous years, according to the analysis, which used state data.
Seven of nine hospitals in Napa and Sonoma counties reported either significantly or slightly more cardiovascular and respiratory cases from January through March 2018 compared with the same period in 2016 and 2017.
For instance, at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center i, emergency room visits for respiratory problems jumped by 570, or 37 percent, from January through March 2018 compared with the same period in 2017. Petaluma Valley Hospital, heart cases increased by 61 patients, or 50 percent.
The life-threatening effects of smoke disproportionately harm the elderly, children and low-income people of color.