Fires Spew Hazardous Smoke In Southern Calif.

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The massive wildfires in Southern California have filled the air with smoke containing hazardous chemicals. Public events have been canceled, and schoolkids have been kept off playgrounds.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's get an update now on those massive wildfires in Southern California. They've caused a huge amount of property damage as we know, and the smoke has traveled far, irritating many people's lungs and eyes. It's been so bad that public events have been canceled and school kids are being kept off of playgrounds. As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, you don't have to live close to the fires to feel them.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The wildfires around L.A. have yielded so much smoke that the air in greater Los Angeles has had a strange twilight glow for several days. A lot of cherished real estate went into that smudge. David Munoz lost his Sylmar house to fire. He says it was surrounded with plenty of natural kindling.

Mr. DAVID MUNOZ: These types of fires here - there's just a lot of fuel because of all of the shrubs and the grass and the pine needles and all that stuff. So it's hard to combat stuff like this, especially with these winds.

BATES: The wind-whipped fires ate everything in their path. They devoured wood-frame homes, melted plastic, and left charred husks in driveways where cars used to be. Area residents are wondering what's in all that smoke from their burning possessions. Jonathan Fielding can tell them.

Dr. JONATHAN FIELDING (Director of Public Health, L.A. County): Mainly water vapor and carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and some hydrocarbons. We also have benzene and formaldehyde.

BATES: Dr. Fielding is director of public health for L.A. County. He says smoke can irritate eyes and throats and aggravate chronic conditions such as asthma and emphysema. But he says people shouldn't worry so much about contracting lung cancer from brief exposure to wildfire smoke.

Dr. FIELDING: We're talking about relatively short-term acute exposures for people who are not as exposed as firefighters are. Even when they are exposed, the increased risk is very low.

BATES: Sam Atwood is with the Southern California Air Quality Management District. The city of Pasadena consulted him before canceling its marathon on Sunday. On his advice, L.A. schools canceled outdoor recess for a day. Atwood says the tiny microparticles in smoke, things smaller than the smallest hair follicle, are a real danger.

Mr. SAM ATWOOD (Media Office Manager, South Coast Air Quality Management District): These tend to become deposited in deep lung tissue and basically stay there.

BATES: Atwood says the air here will clear eventually.

Mr. ATWOOD: Of course, Southern California is still the most polluted region in the country, so it's not going to be pristine. But within a week, hopefully, we'll be back to a normal non-wildfire situation.

BATES: Which means you'll still be able to see the air, but it will be safer to breathe it. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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