Large wildfires and severe heat events are happening more often at the same time, worsening air pollution across the western United States, a study led by Washington State University researchers has found. In 2020, more than 68% of the western U.S. – representing about 43 million people – were affected in one day by the resulting harmful-levels of air pollution, the highest number in 20 years.

“We have seen an increasing trend in the past 20 years of days when high-levels of both particulate matter and ozone are occurring simultaneously,” said lead author Dmitri Kalashnikov, a WSU doctoral student. “This is tied to two things: more wildfires and increases in the types of weather patterns that cause both wildfires and hot weather.”

Deepti Singh.
Singh

“From every indication we have, the hotter, drier conditions projected for this region are likely to increase wildfire activity and contribute to more widespread, severe heat, which means we can expect to see these conditions happen more often in the future,” said co-author Deepti Singh, a WSU assistant professor. “Preparing for these events is really important. We need to think about who is exposed, what capacity there is to minimize that exposure, and how we can protect the most vulnerable people.”

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