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Why Air Quality Was So Oppressive During Last Year's Wildfire Season

Data from EPA and San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District
Air quality during late summer and fall of 2020 was historically bad in many ways, including the length of time that Valley residents endured high Air Quality Index levels.

California’s 2020 wildfire season was indisputably historic: Fires burned a record-high 4.3 million acres in the state, and five of the blazes went down among the 10 largest in our recorded history. Many were touched off by widespread lightning sieges, which hadn’t occurred at such a high rate since 2008.

Likewise, this confluence of events led to unusually high levels of acrid smoke blowing into the Valley, at times from all directions. Throughout the region, the air quality index (AQI) in September and October of 2020 reached higher levels and for longer periods of time than almost any other year in the last two decades.


In this interview, FM89’s Kerry Klein crunched some historic air quality data and compared notes with Jon Klassen, Director of Air Quality Science & Planning with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.


Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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