As bad 2017 ends, So. Calif. wildfires put yet more big stress on public health

usfs-thomas-fire-300x200The clock may be counting down to 2017’s end but Mother Nature isn’t giving up on whipping up calamities that wreak havoc on parts of the nation’s health care system and millions of Americans’ well-being. After swaths of the country were inundated by hurricanes and flooding, the West Coast is now battling yet more huge blazes.

Raging wildfires in Southern California not only have added big time to the billions of dollars that such blazes have caused this year in damage and suffering to people, property, and animals, they also have provided the entire coast with a harsh reminder of the importance of air quality to health.

With luck, public cooperation, and outstanding work by fire fighters, police, and other first-responders, the loss of life has been low in a series of blazes on the Westside of Los Angeles, in the city’s northern reaches, in San Diego, and most especially in Ventura and Santa Barbara. The “Thomas Fire,” burning over hundreds of acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara, has become the third largest wildfire in California record books. The Southern California blazes follow hard on the heels of disastrous infernos in Northern California’s wine country.

The health woes of the southern fires, however, have been pronounced and persistent — for kids, seniors, and those with existing heart or respiratory challenges.

Drought, unseasonable heat, bone-dry low humidity, and powerful Santa Ana winds have combined with explosive fires to incinerate hundreds of square miles of forests, homes, and ranches, creating huge layers of acrid smoke and bad air that have engulfed not only Los Angeles and its environs but the whole coast. Wind borne pollutants — soot and microscopic particles of burned metals, plastics, and toxins — have blackened Southern California skies, creating surreal sun rises and sun sets and covering so much geography that they’re visible by satellites in space.

Schools and business have shut, threatened not only by on-rushing fire but also to protect area residents from unhealthful air and any activity in it. Protective masks suddenly have become must-have items.

The bigger hospitals, so far, have been spared fire damage. Many have gone to generator power, and some — as some nursing homes in the area have done — have evacuated patients to facilities in safer areas. A mental health care facility in Ventura, Calif., had some of its buildings go up in flames. Medical staff at some institutions have soldiered on, caring for patients and carrying out their duties even as they wonder — or know — that their own families or homes have been in harm’s way.

Health experts say that the poor air quality has caused Southern Californians with colds, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other heart and respiratory conditions to seek medical help with their doctors, and, in a few severe instances, at hospitals. Pharmacies say these patients are turning up to get needed and helpful medications.

The fire-related bad air has provided a bad reminder to Southern Californians that their long battle against smog — a campaign that had led to major reductions in pollution-related health harms — also has been ebbing. The region keeps growing. Like the rest of the nation, California has seen its average temperatures rise due, experts say, to global warming. A booming economy has meant that Angelenos are driving again with a vengeance, and, even if their cars are much cleaner over all, they’re pumping out pollutants, as are fleets of trucks and boats that are part of the region’s bustling and polluting businesses.

Wildfires have become their own recurring and significant pollutant of the region’s air — with the worrisome prospect that these harms can be long lasting and deadlier than had been believed.

Forecasters say there might not be a break until the New Year in the heat and atmospheric high pressures that have fueled sustained 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-mile-an hour wind gusts in Southern California. Climate scientists and those who see climate change as a scary reality — including Gov. Jerry Brown — are warning Golden State residents that they need to adopt even more rigorous measures affecting their air, water, and other aspects of the environment.

That’s a tough message that also may have resonance in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean — most especially Puerto Rico. Those areas are staggering to recovery from devastating hurricanes and flooding that damaged hospitals and health care systems and continue to be detrimental to residents’ health and well-being.

In Texas, residents continue to express deep worry about environmental toxins unleashed from the region’s many heavy manufacturing businesses by Hurricane Harvey. Nearly half of Texans who were surveyed by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and who reported storm losses — including of jobs and homes — say they’re receiving insufficient help to recover. They also expressed big concerns about post-storm declines in their mental and physical health.

In Puerto Rico, residents still are struggling to get basic services, including electrical power and housing, as well as to see medical care return anywhere near to pre-storm norms. The Washington Post has put up a fine online presentation, Sin Luz, that seeks to capture Puerto Ricans suffering in what it is described as “the longest and largest major power outage in modern U.S. history.”

This is not good. In my practice, I see not only the significant harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also their struggles to afford and access medical care — and to bounce back to some semblance of normalcy after crises wreck up their lives. The recovery process can be slow, painful, and costly. Those whose lives have been upended need major emotional, physical, and financial support — a hard reality that too many politicians, policy-makers, and even friends, family, and loved ones may not fully appreciate.

Uncle Sam always has and should play a critical role in helping. The Trump Administration, early on, made its public appearances and talked a good game. But our friends, neighbors, and loved ones across the country, it is clear, may need more of a hand up. Given the calamities and needs, however, are the Republicans in Washington on a right course in saddling the country with more than $1 trillion in debt to give major tax cuts to giant corporations and the wealthy elite?

Photo: Kari Greer / US Forest Service
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