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Wildfire Smoke And Environmental Justice: One Little Girl’s Story

Lee Romney
Ta'Kira Dannette Byrd, 11, sits on the couch of her Vallejo home with her mother, Shawntierra Dolton.

Extreme wildfires fueled by climate change have been spewing more harmful smoke into California’s air in recent years. But not everyone is affected equally. Kids like Ta’Kira Dannette Byrd, who live in unhealthy, high-poverty neighborhoods, suffer more.

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This story is part of a series about the emotional toll of climate change. Click here to listen to full episodes.

On certain wonky maps, there’s a swath of downtown Vallejo shaped like a trapezoid. It’s Census tract number 2509, and it posts some of the unhealthiest community conditions in the state: High asthma rates, low birth weights, and poverty-related stressors that contribute to those poor health outcomes, including, many point out, systemic racism. 

But if you could zoom in close — to get behind the data to the people — you’d find Ta’Kira playing in the living room of a ground-floor apartment. Like a lot of 11-year-olds, Ta’Kira likes coloring, drawing and hanging out with her friends. But her health challenges have also informed her ambitions. 

When she grows up, she said, she wants to be “a scientist — the ones that study, like, cures and stuff.” 

In recent years, extreme fire seasons have filled the air Ta’Kira breathes with harmful smoke more frequently. Experts attribute that trend to climate change. And that global phenomenon appears to be taking a very local toll on Ta’Kira and other kids like her, whether they know it or not. 

‘My Lungs Are Closing Up’

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Ta'Kira, 11, snuggles her cat, Oreo. She credits the cat the family believes fathered Oreo for helping to save her life after one asthma attack that landed her in the pediatric ICU.

Ta’Kira’s mother, Shanwtierra Dolton, shared her medical records with us for this story. They show that she was diagnosed with asthma at age 5. Outdoor exertion is one of her triggers. And it can be scary.

“When we have PE and I run a lot it makes me feel kind of weak and stuff and it makes me feel like I can’t breathe,” Ta’Kira, a wisp of a girl with a big smile, said as she snuggled her cat, Oreo. “It feels like my lungs are just closing up.” 

Ta’Kira lives with her mom and two younger brothers at the Marina Vista Apartments — a low-income housing development of blocky two-story buildings. Residents here make up a big chunk of the population in Census tract 2509. And according to the California Healthy Places Index, developed by the Public Health Alliance of Southern California, only one third of one percent of Census tracts statewide have less healthy conditions. 

Four years ago, Ta’Kira had her first big crisis. She was “really really sick,” she recalled, and credits her last cat — who the family says fathered little Oreo — for saving her life. 

“He had woke up my mom because my face was all purple and stuff and I couldn’t breathe.”

Shawntierra heard the cat making a meowing racket and rushed into the living room, where Ta’Kira sleeps. She lunged for her daughter’s asthma treatment but it wasn’t helping. So they rushed to the hospital, mom said, “and they gave her helium and oxygen at the same time to open up her lungs, to have her breathe again.” 

Ta’Kira is thin and lithe, like a blade of wild grass swaying in the wind. She tends to put a positive spin on things — even that emergency treatment of Heliox, which doctors save for the most serious cases.

“I was put on that for an hour,” she said, “and I couldn’t even talk because the thing was on my mouth and on my nose.” The helium, she added, “made me sound like a squeaky mouse.” 

Ta’ Kira stayed in the hospital for days, and went home with a bunch of new prescriptions. But her records show her mom would run out of some key maintenance meds over the next few years. That was partly because of hitches with her Medi-Cal, the government insurance program that serves low-income families in this state. 

Gaps in Ta’Kira’s treatment made controlling her asthma harder, and she landed back in the ER again and again. Meanwhile, the most destructive fires in California history started burning. 

Wildfires Rage

The Tubbs Fire hit in fall 2017, burning through large swaths of Napa and Sonoma counties and decimating several Santa Rosa neighborhoods. Its speed and ferocity made it the most destructive in California— for the next year anyway. The smoke spread so far that even in the Bay Area, air quality readings were more toxic than Beijing’s. The following year, the even-deadlier Camp Fire consumed the entire Butte County town of Paradise, generating even more toxic smoke that drifted for several hundred miles. Last fall, the Kincade fire burned nearly 80,000 acres in Sonoma County. And now, wildfire seasonis upon us again.

Even though these recent major fires burned far from Ta’Kira’s home, they produced tiny particulate matterthat can travel great distances and lodge deep in the lungs, causing damage. Studies show that smokey days have correlated with spikes in ER visits forlung and heart problems. In real-time. And Ta’Kira’s mom and grandma both told me she felt that short-term damage, even getting sent home from school on high-smoke days because of her breathing struggles. But, Ta’ Kira’s worst experiences didn’t coincide with the poorest air quality days. They came later. 

Dr. John Balmes is a professor of medicine and environmental health sciences who studies the impact of air pollution on kids. And he said, that delay is not surprising, because “based on what we know from outdoor air pollution and about asthma biology in general, the effects can be cumulative.”

There’s a lot we still don’t know about thelong-termhealth effects of wildfire smoke. But a recent Stanford University studyshowed potentially lasting damage to the immune systems of kids who’d been exposed to fire smoke. And, an investigation by Reveal for the Center for Investigative Reporting found a spike in ER visits for lung and heart ailments three to five months after the Tubbs fire. 

So, like with daily air pollution, Balmes said, it’s pretty clear the insult of smoke to the lungs can cause harm over time. 

“A child could be exposed to wildfire smoke for a period and have some increase in airway inflammation,” he said, “which would then put them at greater risk of exacerbations from allergens that they’re sensitized to, or make them more at risk for having exacerbation when they get a cold.” 

Environmental Justice

Environmental justice issues come into play, too. Ta’Kira is Black. And Black children are disproportionately affected by asthma, more likely to be hospitalized for it,and even to die from it. Especially in low-income neighborhoods like Census tract 2509, home to Vallejo’s most concentrated Black population. Those asthma trends are due in part to greater exposure to air pollution, from industry and freeway soot. But, Balmes said, also “discrimination, poor housing, poverty, crime,” and other “negative aspects of neighborhoods” such as garbage.

Balmes is researching that stew of factors right now in Richmond, not far from Vallejo. He’s focusing on daily air quality conditions, but said that wildfire smoke “is likely to differentially impact kids in these neighborhoods.” 

In the year following the October 2017 Tubbs fire, Ta’Kira’s records show, she was rushed to Kaiser Vallejo’s Emergency Room every three to four months, wheezing and short of breath. Then, in November 2018, the Camp Fire started burning. And a week later, Vallejo posted its worst air quality of the year

Shawntierra, Ta’Kira’s mom, said she followed public health advice from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which urged people to stay inside with windows and doors closed until smoke levels subsided. That standard warning always notes that the most vulnerable populations are the elderly, those with respiratory illnesses and children. That makes children with severe asthma, like Ta’Kira, doubly vulnerable.

The hitch? Keeping windows and doors closed only helps if your windows and doors keep the smoke out. But Marina Vista’s oldest apartment blocks were built in 1969, more than 50 years ago. And about half a dozen residents interviewed at the complex — including Shawntierra — said the smoke came right in through the aluminum windows. 

Smoke pollution can quickly build to unhealthy levels indoors. It’s one of those areas where resources affect health. Balmes points out that his wife has asthma. So in their Berkeley home, they’ve installed a ventilation system, with a high-end filter, that can be switched to internal circulation during smoke days. They’ve also got air cleaners in every room. Shanwtierra did run out to Best Buy for an air cleanser in her price range but said it “didn’t work enough” for her daughter. 

Back To The Hospital

Three months after Vallejo experienced its worst air quality of 2018, Ta’Kira was back in the hospital. “Working very hard to breath,” the notes say. “Unable to hold a long conversation.”

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Ta'Kira, 11, says she likes "coloring, drawing and hanging out with my friends." When she grows up, she wants to be "a scientist -- the ones that study, like, cures and stuff."

“I was scared because I had to get an IV,” Ta’Kira recalled. “They always put it in the same arm. But then this one nurse she knew I was scared so she took her time putting the fluid all the way in.” 

Ta’Kira was transferred to the pediatric ICU in Oakland, by ambulance. She puts a positive spin on that, too.

“The road was bumpy and stuff and it was fun,” she said softly. But then, she conceded, “we arrived at the hospital, and I was kind of all scared again. There was just like a whole bunch of doctors and nurses crowding the whole entire bed and stuff.”

Shawntierra is a singer. And Ta’Kira says during that time in ICU, “she would sometimes just sing,” especially during those long overnight stays on a little couch in Ta’Kira’s room that folded out into a bed. 

As brave a little girl as Ta’Kira is, though, Shawntierra said the hospitalizations have been terrifying and depressing.

It was just a horrible experience,” she said. “I just remember crying a lot because they kept coming in the room doing extra stuff to her.” 

Living at Marina Vista hasn’t helped. Notes in Ta’Kira’s medical file a few months after that ICU stay list smoke and “bad air day” as a few of her asthma triggers. Others include traffic pollution from busy streets near the apartment, strong-smelling cleaning products, must and mold. 

Shawntierra said there’s mildew in the apartment, too, as well as roaches and mice that congregate at the trash cans near their door and make their way inside, to the kitchen and the bathroom. She said she wishes property management would “move them somewhere else or at least spray more often for roaches and mice.”

Shawntierra went to war with the pests inside the apartment, but toxic mist from pest bombs can also be an asthma irritant. 

“That’s why I stopped using the bomb,” she said. “I just got the bait and the spray. It’s a lot of kids around here too and it’s depressing.”

Last fall, Ta’Kira was back at the Emergency Room again, on a cardiac monitor, getting a continuous flow of asthma meds through a nebulizer. A week later, Sonoma County’s Kincade fire started raging. Meanwhile, a second grass fire began burning into Vallejo. 

Ta’Kira said she remembers “the clouds were a little bit pink and stuff and there was really just smoke everywhere.”

Winds were high, too. So PG&E shut off power — a blackout that for Marina Vista residents lasted for days. That meant she couldn’t use her nebulizer, which relies on electricity. In a crisis that could mean life or death. So the family headed to grandma’s house, in Contra Costa County, and stayed through Halloween. Ta’Kira dressed up as Princess Jasmine — and made the best of it. 

“I was coughing and stuff,” she said, “but I was so busy playing with my cousin and knocking on doors to get candy that I didn’t really care.”

About two weeks later, she was back to the ER. 

Asthma has been a part of Ta’Kira’s life for years now. Inhaling that tiny harmful particulate matter from fire smoke is just one of her many triggers. But over the past few years, it’s joined the list of forces outside her control that cause her anxiety. 

Climate Anxiety

“I worry about fires a lot,” she said. “Like even today I’m kind of still worried about fire.” 

During those smokey days last fall, her thoughts also turned to her uncle, who has asthma too. 

“I was kind of worried about him because he lives right down the street,” she said, “and he also didn’t have any electricity.”

He also has a daughter who was born prematurely, and, Shawntierra said, the little girl “was having difficulty breathing, too.”

When asked to describe their feelings about fire, Ta’Kira and her mom both said they tend to associate it with arson — a single human act of destruction. What’s newer to them is the broader phenomenon of global climate change: Science shows that heavy human reliance on fossil fuels has been the main contributor to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. That has led to hotter, drier, longer and more devastating fire seasons in some parts of the world, including the American West.

Now, Shawntierra said, she feels like she’s part of a larger collective experience, with families she’s never met who live dozens or hundreds of miles away. And it’s painful. 

“A lot of lives were lost and a lot of people lost homes and stuff too,” she said. “I almost lost my only daughter. Not just me, but for everyone that had to go through that, it was horrible.” 

The talk of big out-of-control fires consuming miles and miles of trees, it rings a bell for Ta’Kira, even if climate change doesn’t. She said her teacher taught them about the giant blazes in Australia and how so many animals died as a result. She’s happy some birds got away. 

Beyond the prospect of more wildfires, when Ta’Kira sat down to talk about her asthma she was feeling nervous about something else: Covid-19, which has also laid bare health disparities in the Black community, particularly for low-income families. Ta’Kira and her mom talked to a reporter last March, right before California’s mandate to shelter-in-place went into effect. Even before her school district shuttered, she shared that her mom was keeping her home, out of fear that the virus was “gonna make me feel like I can’t breathe anymore.”

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Ta'Kira lives with her mom, Shawntierra Dolton, and her two younger brothers at the Marina Vista Apartment in Vallejo, in a Census tract that posts some of the unhealthiest community conditions in the state.

In late June, Shawntierra offered an update. Ta’Kira’s asthma had been better over the past few months, she said, maybe because sheltering in place reduced air pollution, maybe because she’s just getting older. Still, Shawntierra said her daughter is still scared of catching Covid. 

“She’s like, ‘No I’m gonna get sick. I can’t touch that,’” she said. “She constantly washes her hands. Sometimes her hands get dry, she complains about that. But she’s like, ‘Nope! I’m not gonna get sick.’ She doesn’t want that experience. I think she’s still traumatized by it.” 

There is some good news, though. The family’s apartment block at Marina Vista is about to undergo a major renovation. It’ll take about a year and Shawntierra said her family will have to move to a different unit for a bit. But the makeover should help Ta’Kira with some of her asthma triggers. 

Crosscurrents Climate