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California Fire Recap and Interview with EPA’s Air Quality Deputy Director

When you were busy celebrating not having school last week, the worst wildfire in California history was still blazing in Paradise, California.

Now maybe you stay up to date with the news, in which case, kudos. But if you, like me, could only think about the four extra days you were getting to catch up on sleep, then here are some eye-opening numbers to know:

Over 153,000 acres were burned. 52,000 people had to evacuate. 84 people died. Over 5,000 firefighters fought the blaze. 475 people are still missing. There were tens of billions of dollars in damages.

If this doesn’t get your attention, then think about this: by the second day, the fire had already burned over 90,000 acres. A few hours after the blaze began it was burning at a rate of 1.3 football fields per second.

As a result of the fire, last week California’s air quality was 60 times worse than world health standards.

I wondered what it would be like to respond to a crisis at this scale, so I talked to the Deputy Director of Air Division in the Pacific Southwest at the Environmental Protection Agency, Matt Lakin. Lakin has been working at the EPA for 16 years, covering California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, and 148 Native American tribes.

Most of what he does, he says, is working with the local air districts and the state agency in charge of air quality, which in our case is the California Resources Board, to comply with the Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act (or its exhaustingly long title, “An Act to improve, strengthen, and accelerate programs for the prevention and abatement of air pollution”) passed in 1963, with the mission to control air pollution on a national level, focusing on acid rain, ozone depletion, and toxic air pollution, among others. His job is to help the bring communities into what is called “attainment” (meeting regulations) through developing plans and rules to get the areas to reach better air than the national air quality standard.

He tells me that there’s an element of creativity to his work: he works together with communities with very different communities and climates, which “requires a different set of solutions – creative solutions.” He says this is one reason his job is so satisfying to him.

He also finds satisfaction in the big picture effects of his work: “We are able to provide benefits on a really enormous scale.”

However, the Camp Fire was no doubt a challenge.

“This is the worst air quality I’ve ever personally experienced and the worst particulate air quality I’ve seen in California or the US in my career.”

The first challenge begins with the immediate effects of the communities dealing with the loss of lives, homes and business. In fact, EPA actually works with FEMA as part of the emergency response and recovery effort.

The second challenge, though, is more long-term. A lot of his job consists of just pointing people in the right direction for information. “We get a lot of calls from the public, we get a lot of requests from the air districts and the state for support and we also get press calls… we generally refer them to our well-developed area of ‘things to do during wildfires,’ and we help to answer questions.” Questions such as, “What should I do? Which masks should I get? Should I cancel this soccer game?” are common.

He explained that over the past 10-15 years the EPA has been updating their website and developing more resources for the public during times like these.

One such resource is a new app called Smoke Sense that the “[EPA] has been recommending strongly.” It’s been an enormous success, with 20,000 downloads. It uses what is called a “citizen science project,” or a way for users of the app to both get and contribute information. In this case, the EPA can provide information about smoke impacts or other fires, but it also allows for anyone to contribute their own observations and input. In this way, both the EPA and users of the app get more data.

Besides rules and regulations, I was curious about how the EPA deals with air quality in general. He explained that a lot of it is using state and federal donated funds for incentive programs aimed to help companies make more air-friendly products.

They also deal with transportation planning: “One of the things that the transportation agency and metropolitan planning organization do is a lot of comprehensive planning to reduce what we call ‘vehicle miles traveled’; to reduce cars, trucks, trips, and get it into modes that are less polluting.”

The efforts have undoubtedly worked, to some extent. Since the 1970s and 80s, for example, the Los Angeles area has dramatically improved ozone and particulate levels.

But he knows that “we still have quite a lot of work to do, and looking to the future one of the things we are trying to do is maintain this progress, really keep trying to bring these areas closer and closer to the healthy based standards. 30 years of progress, but there’s more to do and we have to continue that same trend.”

The recent fires are a clear indication that the effects of climate change are real and happening now. It shouldn’t go unnoticed, for example, that 15 of the 20 most destructive California fires have occurred in the last 20 years. However, people like Lakin will continue to work for a cleaner environment.

After working in air quality since he was eighteen, he still seems committed. “I was motivated by public health and [wanted] to do something that really benefited people.” That same motivation, shared by the firefighters who fought the Camp Fire and countless other environmental activists, is one of the few hopeful aspects of this tragedy: there will always be people working to combat and control climate change in all its forms, no matter how damaging the effects.

Here are photos of what San Francisco looked like before and after the fires:

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