Dealing with the Smoke of Wildfires

Wildfire Smoke

Every summer the forested lands of the western United States, and in other countries as well, burst into flames as humans make errors handling fire or lightning storms ignite trees from the sky.  Fed by dry wood and brush and stoked by winds these fires can burn thousands of acres in a few days.  As they burn they pour smoke and gasses into the air faster than one can imagine.

Wildfire Smoke and Your Health

Wildfire smoke and the gasses and particulates it contains can be disastrous to your health depending upon how it is concentrated around you.

First to be affected are those with heart and lung issues including congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including emphysema), or asthma.

Next are older people who have a tendency to develop health issues that are exacerbated by smoke.

Third are kids whose airways are still developing.  They also breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. On top of that, children often spend more time outdoors in the smoke.

Finally, the rest of us.  Besides irritating eyes and lungs, smoke can lead to serious illnesses.  I developed pleurisy after fighting a wildfire in the Marble Mountain Wilderness of northern California many years ago.  The combination of smoke and the dust of firefighting led to the painful lung infection and a couple of days in the hospital.

What Can You Do

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer the following suggestions:

  • Check local air quality reports. Listen and watch for news or health warnings about smoke and pay attention to public health messages about taking safety measures.
  • Consult local visibility guides if they are available. Some states and communities provide guidelines to help people determine if there are high levels of particulates in the air by how far they can see.
  • Keep indoor air as clean as possible if you are advised to stay indoors. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside.
  • When inside, avoid activities that increase indoor pollution. Burning candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves can increase indoor pollution. Vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home, contributing to indoor pollution. Smoking also puts even more pollution into the air.
  • Prevent wildfires from starting. Prepare, build, maintain and extinguish campfires safely. Comply with local regulations if you plan to burn trash or debris. Check with your local fire department to be sure the weather is safe enough for burning.
  • Follow the advice of your doctor or other healthcare provider about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease. Consider evacuating the area if you are having trouble breathing.
  • Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke. An “N95” mask, properly worn, will offer some protection.
  • Evacuate from the path of wildfires and not just because of the smoke! Listen to the news to learn about current evacuation orders. Follow the instructions of local officials about when and where to evacuate.

More on Masks and Respirators

Between 1989 and 1997, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group studied the health hazards of smoke at wildfires in the Western United States. The study included smoke characterization, employee exposure, health effects, risk analysis, and an evaluation of respiratory devices. Firefighters were fitted with systems to collect breathing zone samples, and data were collected on the three primary hazards of wildfire smoke: respirable particulate matter, aldehydes (formaldehyde and acrolein), and carbon monoxide (CO). The study indicated that less than 5 percent of firefighters were exposed to concentrations that exceeded limits established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

A conference was held in 1997 to review the results of the study and provide recommendations. Participants included scientists and researchers, fire management officers from a wide range of Federal and State agencies, and personnel from regulatory agencies such as OSHA and NIOSH. The participants ultimately concluded that toxic emissions were present in smoke, but the incidence of exposures in excess of OSHA exposure limits was relatively low, and the documented health effects were moderate and often reversible. As such, they recommended that respiratory protection not be required and instead recommended changes to tactics and strategies to further minimize firefighter exposures.

An alternative that does work is self contained breathing apparatus – breathing from a tank of air.  The problem is that a tank may only last a couple of hours.  These are used successfully by urban firefighters, but they are not practical for wild land firefighters or others who are exposed to smoke for lengthy durations.

For more see Respirator Usage by Wildland Firefighters.

The Bottom Line

Pay attention to the smoke situation around you and take the steps necessary to get away from it and protect your health.



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