With wildfires burning across the West and cities from Seattle to Southern California enshrouded in smoke, the environment team’s Matthew Brown and the data team’s Camille Fassett joined forces to assess how many people were exposed to dangerous smoke and the impacts. Their timely exclusive – based on government data, academic studies and interviews – reported that millions of people were exposed to hazardous pollution levels, causing emergency room visits to spike and potentially thousands of deaths among the elderly and infirm.

Analyzing Environmental Protection Agency air quality readings from hundreds of monitoring stations, California-based Fassett found that particulate pollution at the government’s hazardous level hit counties with more than 8 million people for at least a day. AP’s analysis covering five western states also revealed that at least 38 million people live in counties subjected to pollution considered unhealthy for the general population for five days. Brown – an experienced wildfire reporter based in Montana – built on those findings with in-depth interviews of smoke scientists and health researchers, physicians and climate scientists who could put the growing frequency and severity of wildfires into perspective.

Through a pulmonologist, he found an Oregon woman who suffered smoke-triggered asthma attacks that twice sent her to the ER. She figured prominently in the all-formats story, which included photos by Eric Risberg of San Francisco, Ted Warren in Seattle and Andrew Selsky in Oregon, as well as video produced by Manuel Valdes in Seattle.

Using data from Fassett, multimedia journalists Francois Duckett and Phil Holm produced striking and informative interactives showing the spiking numbers of people exposed to wildfire smoke in 2020 and the worst locations for smoke exposure each year over the past two decades. The package played widely on at least 167 web sites including the Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, Seattle Times, San Diego Union Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Arizona Republic and the Oregonian in Portland.

Ted Warren Combo

T-Mobile Park, home of the Seattle Mariners baseball team, is shown under clear skies, Oct. 14, 2020, in contrast to Sept. 14, 2020, when the area was choked with smoke from wildfires burning huge swaths of the U.S. West Coast.

AP Photos / Ted S. Warren