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Northern California Has Been Hit With A Startling Increase Of Wildfire Smoke

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Wildfire smoke is especially harmful to children, and rural communities in Northern California has been hit hard, starting an increase in smoke. And that's according to a new investigation by our California newsroom collaboration. From member station KQED, Farida Jhabvala Romero reports on how dangerous air is affecting schools there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTING EVENT AMBIENCE)

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: High school sports events anchor the town of Willows, Calif., 100 miles north of Sacramento.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Wall (ph) kicks the ball at about the 37-yard line.

JHABVALA ROMERO: At a Friday night football game in this town of 6,000, cheerleaders shake their gold-and-purple pompoms.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Chanting) K-I-C-K - kick that ball.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Thick haze covers nearby mountains in this part of the Sacramento Valley as megafires burn in Northern California. When there's too much smoke, schools cancel outdoor activities like football.

STACY LANZI: Today's better, obviously, because we're playing the game.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Stacy Lanzi has two teen sons, one of them a student at this high school. She's also a third-grade teacher and says the bad air quality is affecting students

LANZI: As far as, like, kids going out to recess, playing sports and kind of, like, overall health, we don't know why we're having headaches and runny noses.

JHABVALA ROMERO: In recent years, Willows has endured 91 days of smoke per year on average, up from 66 days a decade ago. That makes this town one of the smokiest places in America. That's according to an analysis of a decade of federal satellite images by our California newsroom in partnership with Stanford University's Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab. The investigation found millions of Americans, from San Francisco to Boston, are breathing a lot more smoke from Western wildfires.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He got his shot...

JHABVALA ROMERO: In the small town of Willows, physician assistant Brett Brown regularly treats patients at the hospital's family clinic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sounds good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right.

JHABVALA ROMERO: When there's smoke in the air, he sees more patients suffering asthma attacks, intense migraines and stress.

BRETT BROWN: There's always somebody who says something about, well, because of the smoke - insert, you know, problem here, whether it's, you know, I haven't been able to breathe as well because my allergies are so bad, or I haven't been able to see my mom and dad, you know, because of COVID, and now I can't even go outside, so my mental health is so much worse.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Brown worries about the long-term effects on kids. Children are more sensitive to dangerous particles in wildfire smoke because their lungs are still developing.

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JHABVALA ROMERO: At Murdock Elementary, hundreds of students pour out of classrooms and play with balls and hula hoops during recess. But when the air quality reaches levels the federal government says are unhealthy, principal Miguel Barriga keeps students inside all day. And that's tough for some kids.

MIGUEL BARRIGA: You know, will end up in the office, acting out in class, get emotional one way or another or want to go home.

JHABVALA ROMERO: The fires causing the smoke are becoming more common as the climate warms. Barriga says he wants better forest management and solutions to climate change so fires don't burn so intensely.

BARRIGA: You want to believe that the decisions at levels higher than ours will be made to make it be more normal.

JHABVALA ROMERO: More like it used to be, he says, when you could go outside and not worry about breathing wildfire smoke.

For NPR News, I'm Farida Jhabvala Romero in Willows, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT GYM'S "D") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.