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Cal Poly study looks at health and climate impacts of wildfire smoke

Posted at 6:15 PM, Nov 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-23 22:33:43-05

There’s a Cal Poly study underway that is shedding light on the health and climate impacts of the smoke from California’s wildfires.

The study focuses on three major wildfires that burned between July and September of 2018.

They sparked hundreds of miles away from the Central Coast but researchers are revealing how the smoke from those fires could have a direct impact on people here.

It’s the most destructive wildfire season in California history. More than 7,500 fires have charred over 1.6 million acres.

“This is part of a trend,” said California Governor Jerry Brown back in August. “A new normal that we got to deal with.”

Much of the state has seen air quality dip to unhealthy levels.

Cal Poly Chemistry Professor Matthew Zoerb is turning his sights on San Luis Obispo’s air.

With the help of two machines, he’s studying aerosol particles on Cal Poly’s campus.

These particles are much smaller than what most air quality organizations screen for, but they could still have an impact.

“Depending on the molecules that make up these particles, they could actually be transferred into your bloodstream or stay in your lungs,” Professor Zoerb explained.

Over the summer, Professor Zoerb and his students honed in on three large fires for their samplings: the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park, the Mendocino Complex Fire and the Carr Fire near Redding.

“We are still working on going through some of the data and running samples so it is still very much a work in progress,” Professor Zoerb explained.

They have, however, found that the particles differed between the fires, raising the possibility of a fire fingerprint. Another discovery: aerosol particles from fires may cause clouds to form. They also might alter sunlight, by either absorbing or scattering and reflecting the light.

“That could affect the radiation budget and have a big climate impact long-term,” Zoerb said.

The researchers are still gathering samples from the Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire.

They are going to work on comparing all of this new data with data collected in 2016 and 2017.

The professor adds that the rain we are getting reduces the airborne particulates dramatically.