Why you should pay attention to California’s wildfires, even if you live several states away


The wildfires raging through northern California have claimed the lives of 41 people, turned an estimated 5,700 structures to ash and have ravaged an astonishing 213,000 acres of land.

These fires are particularly dangerous thanks to their proximity to major metropolitan areas, as Jan Null, adjunct professor at San Jose State University and a certified consulting meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services, said in a phone interview with Mic.

“As far as the total area burned, we’ve had significantly bigger fires,” Null said. “This is not going to rank as one of the biggest fires. The fact that it occurred adjacent to a metropolitan area, Santa Rosa, which has a population, including the whole metro area, of about 200,000 people — that’s when we see these really destructive fires, is when they occur in the wildland interface between wildlands and urban areas.”

More on the devastating wildfires:

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Wildfire devastation in Coffey Park, Santa Rosa
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Wildfire devastation in Coffey Park, Santa Rosa
An aerial photo of the devastation left behind from the North Bay wildfires north of San Francisco, California, October 9, 2017. California Highway Patrol/Golden Gate Division/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 10: Chloe Hoskins, 7, tags along with her father, who was checking on a neighbors burned out property in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 10: Spencer Blackwell, left, and Danielle Tate, right, find her father's gun collection, melted and burned, inside a gun safe at her father's home in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A US flag hangs on a tree in the widfire ravaged Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California, October 11, 2017. The death toll from some of California's worst ever wildfires rose to 17 as thousands of firefighters battled to bring the infernos under control. The fires which have devastated California's wine country are already among the deadliest ever in the western US state and officials warned they expect the toll to go up. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 10: Jennifer Yarnal searches for keepsakes in the rubble of her home in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 10: Benicia police officer Alejandro Maravilla, left, offers resident Gwen Adkins, 84, right, a soda while patrolling in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A police officers looks at the devastation wrought by wildfires in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California, on October 11, 2017. The toll from Northern California's ranging wildfires continued to grow as officials said the fires destroyed up to 2,000 structures and killed at least 17 people / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 11: Some houses burned and some did not. Aerial view of the damage caused by wildfire that destroyed the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 11, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.(Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 11: Aerial view of the damage caused by wildfire that destroyed the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 11, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.(Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Fire damage is seen from the air in the Coffey Park neighborhood October 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California More than 200 fire engines and firefighting crews from around the country were being rushed to California on Wednesday to help battle infernos which have left at least 21 people dead and thousands homeless. / AFP PHOTO / Elijah Nouvelage (Photo credit should read ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters look for hotspots in the destroyed Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, October 12, 2017. Hundreds of people are still missing in massive wildfires which have swept through California killing at least 26 people and damaging thousands of homes, businesses and other buildings. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
The remains of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California,October 12, 2017. Massive wildfires sweeping through California have killed at least 26 people and damaged thousands of homes, businesses and other buildings, according to authorities. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
The remains of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California,October 12, 2017. Massive wildfires sweeping through California have killed at least 26 people and damaged thousands of homes, businesses and other buildings, according to authorities. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Melted metal from burnt cars is formed on the ground after wildfires ripped through the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California, on October 11, 2017. The toll from Northern California's ranging wildfires continued to grow as officials said the fires destroyed up to 2,000 structures and killed at least 17 people / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 11: Surrounding neighborhoods untouched by fire outside the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 11, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.(Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 11: Aerial view of the damage caused by wildfire that destroyed the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 11, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.(Photo by Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 10: Andrew Hopkins digs around in the rubble of his step-mother Pam Hopkins' home in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Tangerines burned black by wildfires still hang on a tree in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California, on October 11, 2017. The toll from Northern California's ranging wildfires continued to grow as officials said the fires destroyed up to 2,000 structures and killed at least 17 people / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Extensive residential devastation is seen after wildfires ripped through the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California, on October 11, 2017. The toll from Northern California's ranging wildfires continued to grow as officials said the fires destroyed up to 2,000 structures and killed at least 17 people / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 10: Andrew Hopkins sifts through his father's fire-singed baseball card collection at his step-mother Pam Hopkins' home in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 10: Andrew Hopkins sifts through his father's fire-singed baseball card collection at his step-mother Pam Hopkins' home in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 9: Lights from news crews cast an eerie glow on the devastated Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa on October 9, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Fire damage is seen from the air in the Coffey Park neighborhood October 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California More than 200 fire engines and firefighting crews from around the country were being rushed to California on Wednesday to help battle infernos which have left at least 21 people dead and thousands homeless. / AFP PHOTO / Elijah Nouvelage (Photo credit should read ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Fire damage is seen from the air in the Coffey Park neighborhood October 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California. More than 200 fire engines and firefighting crews from around the country were being rushed to California on Wednesday to help battle infernos which have left at least 21 people dead and thousands homeless. / AFP PHOTO / Elijah Nouvelage (Photo credit should read ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
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However, just because you live far, far away from Santa Rosa doesn’t mean you’re out of danger.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, smoke from the fires currently engulfing northern California has already traveled as far south as Mexico, or more than 550 miles from where it originated. And it is that giant plume of smoke that can have the longest tail effect on health.

“Over the past two days we’ve experienced unprecedented levels of air pollution in the region,” Kristine Roselius, spokeswoman for the Bay Area Quality Management District, told Wired. “It’s very difficult to forecast what the air quality will be at any moment because we’ve still got active fires.”

With all that smoke comes what is known as particulates, or fine particles that are less than 2.5 microns or less in diameter. These tiny particles can get into your eyes, nose, lungs or even your bloodstream, causing irreversible damage, according to Dr. Gopal Allada, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Oregon Health & Science University who spoke to NPR about the dangers of fire smoke in September.

“This is not good for our lungs,” Allada said. “When you inhale these really small particles, smaller than a few microns, they can land in your lungs and cause respiratory symptoms.”

More on the California wildfires:

10 PHOTOS
Satellite images of California's wildfires
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Satellite images of California's wildfires

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

Photo Credit: Copyright DigitalGlobe

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These symptoms, he added, can include chest pain, irregular heartbeat or even cause heart attack. And while the risk is minimal to healthy, active adults, it can lead to devastation for those already suffering from chronic illness, the elderly, pregnant women or children. The fastest solution? A high-quality air filter for your entire home, especially if you’re in a high-risk group. The long-term solution? Start caring about climate change.

As Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager with the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in July, “The reality is that, in the southwest and the western U.S., hotter, drier conditions — which climate change is a big contributing factor towards — are making our fire seasons more fierce and longer.”

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