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Smoke's effect on babies at center of environmental fallout from October 2017 wildfires

Anniversary Fire Coverage

To read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage,

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Little Ellie Umehara just started walking. Life is normal for the 9-month-old. She coos and squeals, and goes to story time at the library with her mom.

All is well with the infant, part of a unique cohort of babies who were in their mothers' protective wombs last October when wildfires filled the air with the uncommonly foul smoke from the incineration of thousands of homes.

Aware of the potential harm, mother Christina Umehara, 34, stayed indoors as much as possible during the firestorm, wore a protective mask when she ventured outside - and worried.

“Everyone who knew we were pregnant was worried for us, as well,” the Santa Rosa woman said.

Just how worried they should have been is largely unknown to science.

Many parents fretted over the consequences for their children during the siege of fires, which belched out smoke that dimmed sunlight and cast a dark pall over Santa Rosa while they burned uncontrolled for more than three weeks.

Smoke, carrying tiny particles that can invade the lungs, is an established health threat, causing respiratory ailments, asthma and potential heart attacks, with children and seniors most vulnerable.

Increased hospital visits have been documented during wildfires, but relatively short-term exposure to smoke typically poses no long-term risks, experts say.

But there's a void of information on how it impacts the youngest of all, babies who haven't drawn their first breath, said Rebecca Schmidt, a UC Davis epidemiologist.

Assessing the impact

The legacy of the North Bay calamity includes her effort - with help from about 150 mothers who carried children during the fires - to assess the impact of wildfire smoke on young minds and bodies.

To a mother who was pregnant during the fires and wonders what that might mean, “the honest answer is we just don't know,” Schmidt said.

The fire legacy also includes a nearly half- million dollar project to protect the North Bay's largest reservoir from wildfires, an assessment of water quality in creeks within Sonoma and Napa county watersheds and examination of fire ash and air to identify the pollutants released when toxic chemicals - including solvents, glues, metals and formaldehydes - went up in smoke a year ago.

“It's a big issue we're going to be facing for decades to come,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist who heads the Environmental Health Sciences Center at UC Davis. “Breathing more smoke as life goes on. It's going to affect everything.”

Collecting vital data

Christina and Ellie Umehara are part of the center's B-SAFE study, which stands for Bio- Specimen Assessment of Fire Effects. During the project, scientists are collecting samples of hair and blood, breast milk and baby saliva from participants in eight counties stricken by fire: Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Solano, Butte, Yuba and Nevada.

From mothers who enrolled while pregnant, placenta and umbilical cord blood collected at birth will assess what smoke-related substances were passed from mother to child.

Exposure to air pollution from nonwildfire sources has been associated with autism and other nervous system disorders, premature birth, low birth weight and post-birth respiratory deaths, Schmidt said.

The study is intended to determine whether adverse pregnancy outcomes occur or are exacerbated because of wildfire smoke, she said. The current two-year project will monitor the moms and babies for short-term health effects, and Schmidt said she hopes for ongoing support to continue the project as they grow older.

Meanwhile, she said, the ideal defense against wildfire smoke is to evacuate, but questions remain on how far to go and when it is safe to return. Mothers involved in the program who said they could not leave remained indoors with air conditioning running, frequently replacing the filters, and wearing masks when they went outside.

Painting the picture

Whether these steps are effective remains uncertain and will be explored in the study, Schmidt said.

More than 2,000 households representing about 6,000 people have taken an online survey posted by UC Davis in January asking people to describe their experience during the fires, such as how far they traveled to evacuate, whether they stayed with friends or in shelters and what they had to do without.

“We're trying to get a complete picture of how the wildfires changed their lives,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

For pregnant mothers, their stress level “is as important as anything they may have been exposed to,” Schmidt said.

UC Davis scientists are also working to identify wildfire pollutants by analyzing ash collected at a series of sites from Santa Rosa to the wildlands of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park on the Napa-Lake County line.

Anniversary Fire Coverage

To read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage,

click here.

Incineration of urban materials - insulation, electronics, furniture, cleaning products and pesticides - at extreme temperatures may have created unknown or previously unrecognized health hazards in the smoke and ash, experts say.

Keith Bein, a UC Davis air quality researcher who lives in Oakland, smelled smoke from the Tubbs fire and rushed to Santa Rosa last Oct. 9 to set up sampling stations to assess the toxicity of air at Coffey Park for two days.

“We know what (natural) wildfire smoke is composed of, but we have no idea what will be in this. We expect it to be very different,” Bein said in a press release.

Hertz-Picciotto said she was personally surprised to discover the coating on a particle board product she was having installed in her kitchen came with a warning: “fumes will be dangerous under combustion.” She had the coating removed.

Increase in symptoms

A separate study of health care use during the 2007 San Diego wildfires that exposed millions of people to smoke found that emergency room visits for respiratory conditions increased by 34 percent and visits for asthma by 112 percent.

Children up to age 4 had a 136 percent increase in visits for asthma and children up to age 1 experienced a 243 percent increase.

Health risks from wildfires will likely grow with a potential doubling of wildfire emissions by the end of the century, according to the study, published in July.

Karen Holbrook, Sonoma County deputy health officer, said her department intends to conduct a similar study of hospitalizations during and after the 2017 wildfires, and she expects findings similar to those from San Diego.

Holbrook acknowledged the smoke from the North Bay wildfires was likely more toxic because of the combustion of nearly 6,200 homes. She welcomes the research at UC Davis, with a Sonoma County epidemiologist serving on the community advisory board. But her greater concerns are the deaths and injuries, property losses and financial and economic harm done by the fires that killed 40 North Bay residents.

A guide for public health officials issued by federal and state agencies in 2016 said significant exposure to wildfire smoke may have “slightly increased” risks of cancer of other chronic health problems.

But, Holbrook noted, it also says that “in general, the long-term risks from short-term smoke exposures are quite low.”

Personally, Holbrook said she was not concerned about her health after working in Santa Rosa every day throughout the fires and for months beyond.

“I was exposed to and breathing the same air as everybody else,” she said.

Fire damage to water

At Sonoma Water, the county agency that delivers water to 600,000 North Bay residents, officials realized their most prized asset was in jeopardy.

Lake Sonoma, the region's largest reservoir, is surrounded on all sides by rugged wildlands in a region northwest of Healdsburg with a history of catching fire. A large blaze on the reservoir's 50-mile shoreline could create conditions for erosion that would contaminate the water and ultimately harm a natural water filtration system miles away at the collector wells sunk deep into gravel along the Russian River near Forestville.

“That causes us concern,” said Jay Jasperse, Sonoma Water's chief engineer.

And that made it an “easy decision,” he said, to spend nearly $480,000 on a network of eight high- definition cameras intended to provide early detection of fires in the reservoir's 130-square-mile watershed straddling the Sonoma-Marin county line.

The pan-tilt-zoom cameras, with a 360-degree range and near-infrared technology for night vision, will be operated by the Cal Fire and REDCOM emergency dispatch centers and also feed live images to a public website, alertwildfire.org.

With PG&E installing nine similar cameras feeding into the same network, the region is about halfway to a 35-camera system that would enhance wildfire response in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, Lake and Marin counties, Jasperse said.

Lake Sonoma, contained behind Warm Springs Dam in the 1980s, is surrounded by high and very high fire risk areas designated by Cal Fire, with a history of more than 30 wildfires since the 1940s.

The water agency's concern is justified by the impact of the Rim fire of 2013, which scorched 400 square miles largely along the Tuolumne River between the Hetch Hetchy and Don Pedro reservoirs that provide water to San Francisco Bay area and Central Valley residents.

A U.S. Geological Survey study discovered “turbidity currents,” akin to muddy rivers, flowing along the bottom of Don Pedro Reservoir at speeds up to 6 miles per day, said Scott Wright, a USGS hydrologist.

Fortunately, the currents appeared to be blocked by an old dam beneath the reservoir's surface and the muck did not reach the reservoir outlets, he said.

Possible water pollution

In the wake of the North Bay fires, water quality regulators were concerned about pollution of creeks by runoff from burned areas in three watersheds.

Water sampling sites were established on creeks in the Mark West Creek and Sonoma Creek watersheds in Sonoma County and the Napa River Watershed in Napa County as part of monitoring plans set up by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Samples taken during three or more post-fire rainstorms showed no water quality impact in the Sonoma Creek and Napa River watersheds and “minimal” impact in the Mark West Creek watershed, where tests on three species of small organisms showed no toxic effect, the water board reported.

Katherine Carter, an environmental scientist with the board, said that erosion control measures may have helped keep pollutants out of the creeks and the storms were not intense or long-lasting.

“We had a very forgiving winter,” she said.

The agency hopes to get funding to repeat the testing this winter, said Rich Fadness, the board's surface water monitoring coordinator.

Groundwater was not tested, he said, based on the premise that chemicals are typically filtered out of water as it seeps through the soil.

Christina Umehara, meanwhile, is happily wrapped up in life with the baby that rode out the wildfires in her womb.

“It's so fun watching her grow,” she said. “She's growing so quickly.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ guykovner.

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