SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – Wildfires churning out dense plumes of smoke as they scorch huge swaths of the U.S. West Coast have exposed millions of people to hazardous pollution levels, causing emergency room visits to spike and potentially thousands of deaths among the elderly and infirm, according to an Associated Press analysis of pollution data and interviews with physicians, health authorities and researchers.
Smoke at concentrations that topped the government's charts for health risks and lasted at least a day enshrouded counties inhabited by more than 8 million people across five states in recent weeks, AP's analysis shows.
Major cities in Oregon, which has been especially hard hit, last month suffered the highest pollution levels they've ever recorded when powerful winds supercharged fires that had been burning in remote areas and sent them hurtling to the edge of densely populated Portland.
Medical complications began arising while communities were still enveloped in smoke, according to state health officials.
“It's been brutal for me,” said Barb Trout, a 64-year-old retiree living south of Portland in the Willamette Valley. She was twice taken to the emergency room by ambulance following severe asthmatic reactions, something that had never happened to her before.
Trout had sheltered inside as soon as smoke rolled into the valley just after Labor Day but within days had an asthma attack that left her gasping for air and landed her in the ER. Two weeks later, when smoke from fires in California drifted into the valley, she had an even more violent reaction that Trout described as a near-death experience.
“It hit me quick and hard – more so than the first one. I wasn't hardly even breathing,” she recalled. After getting stabilized with drugs, Trout was sent home but the specter of a third attack now haunts her. She and her husband installed an alarm system so she can press a panic button when in distress to call for help.
“It's put a whole new level on my life,'' she said. “I'm trying not to live in fear, but I've got to be really really cautious.”
California heat causes outages
SAN FRANCISCO – More than 50,000 California utility customers were without power and others around the state were urged to conserve electricity Thursday amid a fall heat wave that brought another round of extreme wildfire danger.
Red-flag warnings for extreme fire danger were in place for much of the San Francisco Bay Area where winds bringing hot, dry gusts of up to 55 mph.
Wildfire largest ever in Colorado
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – One of two Rocky Mountain wildfires fanned by strong winds has become the largest in Colorado history. Firefighters expected windy weather to continue into the weekend but said they were well-positioned to keep the Cameron Peak Fire from burning more cabins in the mountains west of Fort Collins, Colorado.