USA — While wildfires in California continue to rage andchase many from their homes, those who are not directly in the path of theinferno may also be in harm’s way.
High winds fanning the flames may also carry thick smoke over great distances,inundating many homes miles away. Now some wonder whether this situation willprompt health warnings similar to those issued last May when stubborn wildfiresblanketed homes in California and Florida with smoke.
“Certainly, repeat examples of short-term exposure [to smoke] can havehealth effects,” said the American Lung Association’s Janice Nolen duringlast May’s fires. “We have wildfires just about every year in this country,and we definitely know that it can hurt people.”
The ubiquitous smoke from a wildfire may not be as toxic as that from anindustrial fire — which may involve chemicals, plastics or other hazardoussubstances — but scientists say the trees and brush consumed by a wildfire arefar from a clean fuel. And compared to urban structure fires, the protractedsiege of a wildfire can exact a greater physical toll on people, especiallyfirefighters.
“Because of the fact that you’re out on the fire lines for so muchlonger, you tend not to be able to carry the self-contained breathing apparatus,so the direct exposure [to smoke] is much greater,” said Carroll Wills,spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters, an organization thatrepresents 30,000 paid firefighters in California.
Especially vulnerable to the smoky mixture of dangerous organic compounds,carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and air pollutants are theelderly and young children.
“Older folks have pre-existing conditions, including heart disease, sothey’re more affected,” said Jeannine Mallory, spokeswoman for the PinellasCounty, Fla., health department, last May. “And children take in moreair-per-pound than [adults] do. They breathe more than we do, so to speak.”
For three weeks in the fall of 2003, millions in Southern Californialiterally held their breath as more than a dozen fast-moving wildfiresthreatened lives and property, and left the air thick with smoke. Fanned bymenacing Santa Ana winds, the fires killed at least 15 people, destroyed morethan 3,500 homes and buildings, and charred an area the size of Rhode Island.
As the infernos grew, so did the number of people seeking treatment forshortness of breath, chest pain, sinus irritation. and other respiratoryailments. Dr. Michael Keane, a UCLA pulmonologist, said many of his patientswere literally coughing up black soot.
“We saw exacerbations of asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema,”said Keane. “There were people who might not have had symptoms with theirasthma for several years — people who hadn’t had an emergency visit for sometime — we were seeing them coming in with flares in their asthma directlyrelated to the wildfires.”
Though the long-term effects of such exposure are unclear, smoke from burningwood can remain in the atmosphere for weeks, and the tiny, carcinogenicparticles in the smoke — some of which are one-thirtieth the width of a humanhair — can linger in a person’s lungs as well.
“With even a few days of wildfire exposure, a person can haverespiratory difficulty for several weeks afterward,” said Keane. “Evena couple months it can take to kind of recover fully from that.”
Experts advise staying indoors, closing doors and windows, and using airconditioning. Home air filters can help, but paper dust masks generally offerlittle protection.
“[The masks] are made for catching large particles, if you’re doing ahome improvement project, if there’s sawdust flying around, or you’re working inyour yard using a blower,” said Mallory.
Officials also advise reducing the amount of man-made indoor particulatematter. That means no vacuuming, no smoking and no indoor burning, including theuse of gas stoves or candles.
And for some, it may not be smart to simply wait for an evacuation orderbefore leaving an area.
“You kind of have to let common sense be your guide,” said SverreVedal, an environmental health professor at the University ofWashington-Seattle. “If your airways are irritated and you smell smoke,then you are too close for it to be healthy for you.”