California is burning. It's a fact, and a difficult one to swallow at that, but as surfers we always tend to find our escape. It's in our nature, but at what point does that escapist tendency become a health risk? With the world on fire around us, just how damaging is it to "clear our heads" in ashen air?
I mean, the waves are still really good, and the lineups are growing even more barren as the disaster grows more severe. Carcinogens and pollutants emitted from these fires are bound to pose some health risk – but is it enough to keep you out of the water?
"I'm not really too worried about surfing during the fires," said Ryan Schneider, still-wet from a session at Salt Creek. "Yesterday, when it was a little bit bigger, I felt a little more winded than I normally would have, but I'm not really too concerned."
Other surfers felt a bit more reluctant (or at least regretful) about their indulgence in perfect surf amid the blaze.
"My eyes were burning and I had this really ashy taste in the back of my throat," said another Creek-goer, John Thomas. "I was trying to keep my face really close to the water to cut down on the ash. The surf was really good, but I knew it was really bad for me so I only surfed for an hour.”
So just how bad was it for him? Can one hour really make a difference?
"Someone who has been exercising heavily outdoors would have very irritated lungs by this point, including some inflammation from exposure, but this should recede once the fires dissipate," says Dr. Ricardo Tan, a Board-Certified Allergist, who works with the California Allergy and Asthma Medical Group in Los Angeles.
That may seem inconsequential considering 1,500 homes have been destroyed and 900,000 Southern Californians have been ordered to evacuate for safety, but another damage toll has yet to be charted: The particulates released from the wildfires air are capable of reeking havoc on the respiratory system.
The soot and ash emitted by the fires often house toxic compounds that sink deep into lungs upon respiration. Coughing, a tightness of the chest, and sparking pre-existing conditions like asthma and emphesyma are all likely consequences of one too many fire sessions.
"The main concerns for surfers are exercise-induced asthma as well as allergens in the air," says Dr. Tan. "In this particular instance, the smokey air would neutralize any good effect of being in the water, because the particulates will aggravate any pre-existing conditions."
"Depending where you are, the level of particulates in the air is probably about 20 times higher than normal especially in areas like Malibu or San Diego, so we advise our patients not to do any unnecessary outdoor activities for the time being."
Headaches and pulmonary infections are also potential near-future consequences of prolonged exposure to the dirty air.
Luckily, the Weather Channel has reported that the Santa Anas should halt within the next day, diffusing the wildfire situation dramatically. While this turn of events should put a smile on Southern California homeowners' faces, it might make them a bit teary eyed – for a different reason: Meteorologists have also predicted that the wind direction may reverse, causing a seaward swarm of soot and ash to make its way back over land.
If your house is still standing, now might be a good time to stock up on Claritin and Kleenex as the rebuilding process looms heavy in the future. Let's take stock right now: A lot of destruction has amassed, we're going to be sick, and the winds are going to be onshore. A good swell seems to have turned sour in Southern California.
For additional health information, contact The California Allergy and Asthma Medical Group at (310) 966-9022 or the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America California Chapter at 1-800-624-0044.