SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Another morning without a sunrise. As forests burned in the distance, the leaden sky smelled like a campfire. Air-quality sensors glowed red. And once again, Dave Begley, a lumberjack who has been sleeping in his truck here since fleeing California’s wildfires, woke up straining to breathe.
“I get winded so easy now,” Mr. Begley, 59, said. “I wear my mask, but it doesn’t work. What can you do about it?”
Millions of coughing, wheezing, smoked-in people are trying to figure out the same question. Plumes of smoke from record-breaking wildfires are blurring skies across California and the western United States this summer and robbing people of a respite they had embraced to endure the coronavirus — the simple pleasure of going outdoors.
Sporadic power outages and the relentless heat have made life indoors almost equally intolerable.
“You can’t go outside, you can’t run your air conditioning and you can’t open a window,” said Megan Cauley, 36, an information-technology manager outside San Francisco.
Because the outside now makes her 4-year-old and 15-month-old children cough, they have been playing for hours in a bathtub, away from any leaky windows. “It was the only way to keep them moving and cool enough,” she said.
Smoke and fires are a natural part of life in the West. But smoky skies have been getting more common over the past decade as the West confronts a deepening drought. Some Californians, especially those with asthma, are starting to wonder how long their lungs can endure a climate marked by longer, fiercer wildfire seasons.
“I’m panting for air,” said Evan Underwood, 28, who moved to the Bay Area two years ago. For the past couple weeks, as fires blazed across Northern California, Mr. Underwood has been getting winded unloading the dishwasher or walking across his apartment. A trip to the grocery store leaves him hyperventilating, his chest throbbing in pain.
“If things don’t get under control we’re going to have to move,” he said.
In Colorado, the Denver Post reported that officials have started telling people to create a purified “safe room”as a barrier against smoke and ozone from fires and industrial pollution from sources including oil and gas production. The haze has blotted out saguaro-studded mountains in Arizona and turned Montana’s big skies a rusty orange. The fires’ tentacles have reached as far as Minnesota.
In the worst-affected corners of the West, some people now spend the days cloistered inside until their air-quality apps tell them it is safe to take a quick jog or bike ride. Others are sealing their doors and windows and hoarding air purifiers and heavy-duty filters for when they can use their air-conditioners. Pulmonologists and asthma specialists say they are swamped with calls from distressed patients.
Some people are leaving altogether, abandoning their hazy hometowns in California to stay with relatives anywhere else they can breathe without gasping. After days of coughing and misery, Ms. Cauley said that she, her husband and two young children made the 13-hour drive to Seattle to stay with her parents until the skies clear.
“This is the one thing we can do something about,” she said. “We will just deal with whatever shape the house is in when we come back.”
Others have fled to the coast or driven toward whichever nearby city seems to have the best air-quality index as the winds push the smoke in different directions. After Jake Orlowitz and his wife drove six hours north to get their 4-month-old son away from the smoke, he found his thoughts tugging toward friends and neighbors who had lost everything back home in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Studies have found that 911 calls and emergency-room visits for cardiac distress and breathing emergencies shoot up in the hours and days after wildfires erupt.
The blazes burn not just Ponderosa pines, madrones and Douglas firs, but also cars, paint, plastic and insulation, and gales of tiny particles belched out in the fires can travel hundreds of miles and end up down someone’s throat, slipping through most face masks like water through a colander. The particles can irritate sinuses, eyes and throats and inflame the lung sacs that bring oxygen to the blood.
There were an average of 49 smoky days across California last year — nearly two weeks more than there were in 2011, according to an analysis of federal weather data by scientists at Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research.
Researchers found the number of smoke-filled days was growing the most in the southern part of California’s San Joaquin Valley, where immigrant farmworkers spend long, hot shifts gulping down air laden with dust, chemicals and exhaust from farm equipment. The rise in smoke was slowest in desert areas where there is less to burn.
“We’ve seen in California in the last decade fires of a magnitude and intensity that’s totally unprecedented,” said Chris Field, the director of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford. “With climate change it’s going to be an increasing part of life across the West for the rest of the century.”
As hundreds of wildfires charred nearly 1.4 million acres of dry, overgrown fuels across California, and more across other states, doctors said they have seen a surge in complaints from patients.
“It’s been a disaster,” said James D. Wolfe, an allergist and immunologist and a clinical professor at Stanford who treats patients around Silicon Valley and farther down the coast. “It was one patient after another, every 15 minutes, wheezing, unable to sleep. It’s terrible.”
He worried that a mother and 15-year-old daughter had exposed themselves to the coronavirus after attending a party that had been relocated indoors to avoid the smoke. A few days after the party, they had fevers, falling oxygen levels and coughs. The daughter told Dr. Wolfe she had never felt so sick in her life.
Dr. Wolfe said they had been tested for the coronavirus but did not yet have results.
“Pollution moved them indoors,” he said. “They were trying to do the best they could, and it backfired.”
In the Santa Cruz emergency room where Julie Gorshe works as a physician assistant, more and more patients are coming in wheezing, coughing and with shortness of breath — symptoms of smoke exposure, and also of Covid-19. Some with chronic respiratory problems had fled without their medicine or inhalers. Others who lost power no longer have working oxygen machines.
The virus has complicated people’s plans for relief. People who took an impromptu vacation or stayed with family after other fires now say they are confounded by the risks of air travel or the question of whether they can safely move in with family members until the air at home is safer.
Dolly Patterson, 62, who lives in Redwood City, not far from the giant C.Z.U. Lightning Complex fires, said she has been vomiting for eight days straight in response to the heavy smoke. Her throat is so dry that she can sometimes barely speak. She has considered retreating to stay with family in Seattle or San Diego, but for the moment, she is stuck.
“I cannot get on an airplane and risk Covid,” she said. “When I can escape, I will.”
Public-health experts suggest that people stay inside, buy expensive air-filtration systems and weatherproof their homes to keep the smoke from seeping in. But not everyone can afford such solutions or a $300 air purifier.
Tavo Diaz, a letter carrier in Santa Cruz, said he still had to deliver the mail, and even had to buy his own mask. He said the surgical mask provided by the post office was useless at filtering the fine particles that make him cough and redden his eyes, so he bought his own N-95 He takes his inhaler with him these days, and can taste the smoke long after he gets home at night.
“If it wasn’t for the N-95, I’d be with a sinus infection already,” he said. “This is not normal.”