Wildfire Smoke Killed More Than 50,000 Californians Over a Decade

A satellite image of wildfire smoke over California, November 2018.

A satellite image of wildfire smoke over California, November 2018. NASA

A new study finds that more than 50,000 Californians died from exposure to wildfire smoke over a little more than a decade.

Smoke contains tiny particles, small enough to enter the bloodstream when inhaled, that can raise the risk of dying from heart or lung disease. For the study, researchers modeled particulate pollution from wildfires across California from 2008 to 2018. They then compared their model with local mortality numbers to infer the number of deaths from wildfire smoke.

In total, they estimate that at least 52,480 Californians met early deaths as a result of breathing smoke. Their study, published in Science Advances, is the first to explore the effect of chronic smoke exposure across the state. Lead author Rachel Connolly, of UCLA, said their numbers exceed previous estimates of deaths from wildfire smoke, which only considered exposure over the short term.

A growing body of research, she said, suggests that “particulate matter from wildfire smoke is more harmful to human health than particulate matter from other pollution sources.” To limit wildfires, she said, society must better manage forests and do more to rein in warming.


Can ‘Immortal’ Sequoias Survive the Ravages of Climate Change?