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US wildfire smoke exposes millions to hazardous pollution, analysis shows
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US wildfire smoke exposes millions to hazardous pollution, analysis shows

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The juxtaposed photos above are taken from the same spot near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, showing an orange sky on Sept. 9, 2020, and a clear sky on Oct. 11, 2020. Use the arrows to toggle between the photos.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Wildfires churning out dense plumes of smoke as they scorch huge swaths of the U.S. West Coast have exposed millions of people to hazardous pollution levels, causing emergency room visits to spike and potentially thousands of deaths among the elderly and infirm, according to an Associated Press analysis of pollution data and interviews with physicians, health authorities and researchers.

Smoke at concentrations that topped the government's charts for health risks and lasted at least a day enshrouded counties inhabited by more than 8 million people across five states in recent weeks, AP's analysis shows.

Major cities in Oregon, which has been especially hard hit, last month suffered the highest pollution levels they've ever recorded when powerful winds supercharged fires that had been burning in remote areas and sent them hurtling to the edge of densely populated Portland.

Based on prior studies of pollution-related deaths and the number of people exposed to recent fires, researchers at Stanford University estimated that as many as 3,000 people over 65 in California alone died prematurely after being exposed to smoke during a six-week period beginning Aug. 1. Hundreds more deaths could have occurred in Washington over several weeks of poor air caused by the fires, according to University of Washington researchers.

Wildfires are a regular occurrence in Western states but have grown more intense and dangerous as a changing climate dries out forests thick with trees and underbrush from decades of fire suppression. What makes the smoke from these fires dangerous are particles too small for the naked eye to see that can be breathed in and cause respiratory problems.

Fires across the West emitted more than a million tons of the particles in 2012, 2015 and 2017, and almost as much in 2018 — the year a blaze in Paradise, California killed 85 people and burned 14,000 houses, generating a thick plume that blanketed portions of Northern California for weeks.

Below are four more pairs of before-and-after photos. From top to bottom: Crissy Field in San Francisco; Columbus Avenue, San Francisco; downtown Seattle and CenturyLink Field; and T-Mobile Park in Seattle.

Photos: Orange skies, hazardous pollution

These photos show the effects of wildfires that an Associated Press analysis finds have exposed millions of people to hazardous pollution levels.

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