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Atlas Fire

Hillside homes around the Silverado Resort and Spa were shrouded by smoke during the Atlas Fire. 

Researchers at UC Davis hope to enlist thousands of Northern California residents in an online survey designed to gather the personal experiences, household circumstances and health effects from devastating wildfires that burned over 245,000 acres in six counties and killed 44 people.

About 140 people signed up in advance to take the survey, which went live Thursday.

But the push to get the word out is just beginning, with particular focus in hard-hit Sonoma and Napa counties, said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist and director of the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center.

“If you’re living there, you’re living it,” said Hertz-Picciotto, the research leader.

Residents of other affected counties, including Mendocino, which suffered significant losses, are urged to take part, as is anyone else affected by the fire and smoke that plagued the region for weeks beginning Oct. 8.

Researchers said the survey should take about 20 to 30 minutes to complete.

The questionnaire is part of a larger study of health and environmental hazards that existed during and after the fires, which claimed about 6,200 homes in the North Bay and raised concern about potential toxics vaporized into the air or left behind.

Some residents have complained of chronic rashes, headaches and other ailments in the wake of the infernos, and researchers say too little is known about the contents of smoke and ash resulting from urban fires.

Analysis of ash from the recent Thomas fire in Southern California turned up significant levels of metal, researchers from UC Santa Barbara announced Thursday.

The concentrations of individual metals and other elements were below screening risk levels for long-term exposure in soil, but “their combined presence in the ash is of concern,” said one researcher with the university’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management.

UC Davis scientists hope to look at the short- and long-term effects of exposure to flames and smoke, as well the impacts of stress and displacement experienced by thousands of affected residents.

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The two-year investigation includes long-term air quality monitoring and soil testing inside burn zones.

The results of the questionnaire, developed with input from local health departments and other agencies, are intended to shape services at the local level in the wake of the fires, and to help prepare and respond to future urban wildfires, Hertz-Picciotto said. She noted that such fires are expected to become more frequent as climate change accelerates and more wildland areas are developed.

The survey includes questions about proximity to the fires, evacuations and displacement, property and job loss, health pre-fire and post-fire symptoms, and other issues. Researchers want only questionnaire per household, though each family member’s experience can be addressed.

Sonoma County Health Services Director Barbie Robinson said department personnel “look forward to the results of the study and will use the findings, as well as data from other assessments, to inform the response to the fires and also improve public health preparedness.”

The project team also intends to conduct limited field interviews in the region later this spring, but the online survey will remain open for at least a few months, until responses begin to slow, Hertz-Picciotto said.

The research team hopes to conduct follow-up research, as well, she said.

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