Breathing Fire: California’s Central Valley Bears the Brunt of Wildfire Smoke

This story was produced and published in partnership with KQED, an NPR affiliate in California. It’s part of “Breathing Fire,” a series of research reports and journalism features by Climate Central. The work has received support from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. Read the report.
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By Maya Miller (Climate Central) and Alexandra Hall (KQED Public Media)

MADERA COUNTY, Calif. — After 30 minutes of gardening, Donna Fisher’s eyes are burning. One is swollen shut. Since retiring to the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range 20 years ago, the 74-year-old has cultivated a garden large enough to feed her and her husband well into the winter. For the past two years, smoke from wildfires has reduced the time she can spend tending to her vegetables before her asthma and bronchitis are triggered.

“It’s like somebody choking you, or putting a band around your chest and pulling it tight,” she said. Wildfire seasons in the Western U.S. are 105 days longer than they were five decades ago, billowing smoke that contains tiny chemical particles that threaten public health. “It used to be a few days, maybe a week at worse.