Author: Ellie Wang
Editors: Galiba Anjum and Liane Xu
Artist: Cici Zhang
2020 was certainly a tumultuous year. Alongside the raging pandemic, there were a slew of natural disasters in the United States—the most prominent being raging wildfires during the summer. The smoke that lingers in the air as a result of these wildfires is detrimental to an individual’s health, especially for children and adolescents.
A 2020 New York Times article mentioned that “fine particulate matter pollution… increases the risk of asthma in children and compromises their immune systems.” Although this has been a well-known fact for a while now, recent studies have unearthed just how deep those changes could be. According to the Stanford University’s School of Medicine, kids exposed to wildfire smoke suffered greatly compared to their counterparts exposed to smoke from prescribed burns. The former group had lower blood levels of Type 1 helper T cells—immune cells involved in immune responses. Additionally, this group showed decreased activity of the Foxp3 gene, which assists in regulating immune responses such as allergic reactions. Thus, wildfire smoke not only increases the risk of kids developing respiratory conditions, but also affects their immune systems on cellular and genetic levels.
External factors such as the substance of the fuel and localized climate can influence the severity of these effects. For instance, while the participants in the Stanford study weren’t exposed to fires that burned man-made structures, there’s virtually no doubt that having chemical particulates in the air from burned structures would have further worsened the air quality. Location is a key factor as well. In general, rural areas are harder hit because of the abundance of dry brush and dead trees due to heatwaves and droughts. These areas have strong winds that can carry wildfires very far, creating huge clouds of smoke. Economic conditions also play a significant role in determining who is affected the most by wildfire smoke as air purifiers and air quality sensors are expensive, and not everyone has the option of leaving the state when the smoke gets bad.
Why have the wildfires gotten so bad recently? The rise of fires is not a surprise, as there has been much build-up leading up to the fires. The forests that cover the western U.S. used to burn naturally, but over time they have been unblocked by man-made structures and intervention by the Forest Service. This would make “patchwork” forests or forests with intermittent patches of trees quicker and more efficient. The clearings in between ensured that the wildfires wouldn’t spread too far, and the old-growth trees weren’t as flammable as young saplings. The Native American practice of creating controlled fires, referred to as “prescribed burning,” served the same purpose as these natural fires. However, this doesn’t happen in the world today. Logging causes old-growth trees to be cut down, and the young trees that replace them have steadily grown closer and closer together, allowing wildfires to spread more easily. Adding on to that, the Forest Service puts out 95 to 98 percent of all fires that occur every year, causing all that fuel to accumulate. These conditions have made the western U.S. forests prepackaged meals for severe wildfires. Therefore, the public must accept that prescribed burns are part of the solution. They would thin the slew of trees vulnerable to wildfires, and create far less smoke than wildfires. To protect kids from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke, efforts have to be made about this untreated problem.
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