ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There are nearly 100 uncontrolled large fires burning across the western U.S. right now in California, Colorado, Oregon and other states. The fires have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. And the smoke is affecting millions. As NPR's Nathan Rott reports, that is especially worrisome during this pandemic.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Stephanie Christenson is a pulmonologist, or a lung doctor, as she puts it, who's already on the front lines of COVID-19. She's an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco. And over the last few days and week as fires exploded around the Bay Area, filling the air with acrid smoke, she and some of her colleagues started asking each other...
STEPHANIE CHRISTENSON: Are we apocalypse doctors now? Because it feels kind of like we're apocalypse doctors. It wasn't exactly what I expected going into this.
ROTT: The smoke from California's fires and others is blanketing most of the western U.S., blurring skylines and creating haze from the West Coast to as far east as Kansas. And in that smoke is something that Christenson says is definitely not good to be breathing, particularly during a respiratory pandemic - an air pollutant called PM2.5.
CHRISTENSON: It's this particulate matter, which is really, really tiny.
ROTT: Thirty times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
CHRISTENSON: So it's really, really small. And that means that it can lodge deep into your lungs.
ROTT: Where Christenson says it can cause a whole host of problems.
CHRISTENSON: It can increase the risk of asthma exacerbations, COPD exacerbations, heart disease issues.
ROTT: And she says potentially COVID-19. The virus is new enough that most of the research into links between it and air pollution like smoke are preliminary. But Christenson says they do know enough to speculate that smoke inhalation could make the virus worse. And that's worrying health officials and researchers all across the western U.S.
LUKE MONTROSE: I was initially really worried about wildland firefighters.
ROTT: Luke Montrose is an assistant professor of community and environmental health at a very smoky Boise State University.
MONTROSE: And I've sort of transitioned my thought now to today's the first day of school at Boise State.
ROTT: And the first day of classes for a lot of schools K-12 in the West. In normal times, Montrose says, during smoky fire seasons, schools can keep windows shut. But in a year like this...
MONTROSE: Close the windows and potentially increase the concentration of a virus that could be spreading around the school. because you're trying to reduce the amount of toxic, you know, wildfire smoke.
ROTT: A situation, he says, where there's really no good choice.
Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.