Camp Fire Lead measured at Chico chart

 Lead concentration at an air monitoring station in Chico.

Smoke from the deadly November 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County caused a "concerning" increase in lead in the air, some of which traveled more than 150 miles to San Jose, the California Air Resources Board said in a report this week.

Lead is a toxic air contaminant that can accumulate in human bodies, especially children, resulting in potentially harmful respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and pneumonia, the report says.

The 2018 Camp Fire started after a worn C-hook snapped off a Pacific Gas & Electric transmission tower. It killed 84 people and burned close to 20,000 structures, which contained metals, in addition to organic materials, the report says. Lead concentration in the air in Chico increased by more than 50 times above average levels, while Manganese concentrations in the air more than quadrupled.

“While the elevated levels of lead detected in Chico during the Camp Fire only lasted for about a day, these numbers are still concerning, since lead is considered a toxic air contaminant and any increased exposure can be harmful,” CARB staff said in the report. “Lead exposure has been linked to high blood pressure, reproductive effects and cancer in adults. Infants and young children are especially sensitive to low levels of lead that are known to cause behavioral changes and learning deficits.”

In San Jose, Camp Fire smoke carried in about twice the average concentrations of calcium and iron, the report says. Lead concentration also increased in San Jose from about 0.01 µg/m3 in October 2018 to about 0.5 µg/m3 at the time of the fire. Futhremore, the average PM2.5 concentration in San Jose in November 2018, the time of the Camp Fire, was about 39 µg/m3, whereas from 2010-2017 the November average was about 12 µg/m3.

The report also analyzed the effects of smoke from three other large California wildfires in 2018: the Carr Fire, which burned 1,600 structures; the Mendocino Complex fires, which burned about 250 structures; and the Ferguson Fire, which burned fewer than 10 structures. The Camp Fire burned more than 18,000 structures and therefore released the highest concentrations of metals into the atmosphere, the report says.

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Staff Writer

David Krause is an energy reporter covering the California Energy Commission and Air Resources Board. He writes about transportation, climate change, utilities, and wildfires. He has an MFA in Writing, an MA in English, and a BS in Civil Engineering.