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How Wildfires Affect Your Health and the Environment

We had a completely different article written for this week. But as we escaped the 500+ air quality index (AQI) in Oregon, it didn’t feel like we could talk about anything other than the horrific wildfires that are raging across the western half of the United States.

More than 4.6 million acres have burned across western states in 2020 alone, as of mid-September. Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes and many more stand by on notice. The number of deaths cannot be accurately estimated because many areas are still ablaze. And smoke fills the air to the point that it shuts out the sun in the middle of the day, raising the AQI to well over 300–the threshold for hazardous levels.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that exposure to air pollution accounts for 7 million deaths each year. That number that is only expected to rise as wildfires and other extreme weather events occur more frequently and severely due to climate change.

Wildfires are a normal part of the ecology of the forest. They’re important for the health of all life within them. But, what we’re experiencing today is not normal to say the least.

“Although fire has always been a natural—and beneficial—part of many ecosystems, climate change and other human-caused factors are fundamentally changing the frequency and intensity of wildfires in many places in the US and around the world,” the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote.

As many residents including us can attest, breathing in the air from fiery orange skies is scary and can have serious health consequences. You can imagine how much particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other gases that are in the smoke from burning buildings, foliage, and cars, among other materials.

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Natural Fire Activity Versus 2020 Wildfires

We’ve discovered a great deal about fire and the critical role it plays in the environment while learning about the ecology of forests. Our goal was to identify the characteristics of healthy forests that could play host to a complete ecosystem–something we are wanting to support on our family’s future land. What we found in the Pacific Northwest was something completely different.

The enormous amount of logging and monoculture replanting of trees for the industry stood out to us the most as we drove thousands of miles throughout California, Oregon, and Washington. Biodiversity is a key factor in building resiliency–one that was obviously missing from these once-pristine places.

You see, there is a difference between healthy fires that occur naturally in the forest ecosystem and those that are man-made or due to human intervention. Smokey Bear, the “spokesbear” for the Forest Service’s fire prevention message since 1947, was an extremely successful campaign to reduce the number of fires each year. It was so effective that it prevented the normal and necessary fires from clearing out the fuel, such as dead trees and underbrush, that would accumulate on the forest floor. That natural clearing process invites more food to grow for animals to grow and new trees to mature.

While fire is a natural and essential part of these ecosystems, warming temperatures and drying soils—both tied to human-caused climate change—have contributed to observed increases in wildfire activity. The earlier snowmelt and higher temperatures—and resulting drier soils from increased evaporation—in addition to greater water loss from vegetation have contributed to lengthening the Western fire seasons.

The Union of Concerned Scientists Tweet

What we’re seeing today is the perfect storm of catastrophic proportions: compounding effects of climate change, the ramifications of human intervention in the natural world–which we are only beginning to truly understand–and a 20-year mega-drought combined with record-setting temperatures and extreme weather conditions normally seen in the winter months.

Today’s severe wildfires have immediate and lasting effects on the environment, impacting animal habitats, water quality, soil stability, and permanently altering landscapes. While some older trees may survive, much of the vegetation can be lost in a fire. This makes the soil more vulnerable to stormwater runoff, which transports pollutants into water sources–taking any good nutrients with it. It also leaves any vegetation that survives more vulnerable to disease, fungus, and insects.

The normal air pollution is bad enough. But an early wildfire season poses serious health risks we should all be aware of.

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How Wildfires Affect Human Health

Scenes of fire-decimated towns with smoke hovering in the streets is an all-too-familiar image. A lonely chimney is surrounded by the white and gray ashes of personal items and keepsakes, while a car with melted tires sits in the former driveway. 

With that post-apocalyptic picture in your head, let’s take into account the First Law of Thermodynamics: Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. Imagine the toxic chemicals and particulate matter that are now in the air after a fire; the same ones you’re breathing. While some air pollution from smoke, wildfires, or ash from volcanoes occurs naturally and is still harmful to the animal body, the man-made anthropogenic sources create particulate matter (PM) that is particularly harmful to human health.

When breathed in, PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) and even smaller nanoparticles can penetrate the lung membranes, damaging the respiratory system and passing into the bloodstream. Wildfire smoke can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, causing coughing or wheezing, and making it difficult to breathe. And those side effects pale in comparison with the long-term health effects.

Particulate matter has also been linked to increased inflammation and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Inflammation in the body can leave your immune system vulnerable to attacks from respiratory pathogens such as Covid-19. 

The reactive chemical compounds in the wildfire smoke can be carcinogenic, and that can lead to premature births. One study found the wildfire coarse PM is about four times more toxic to the lung macrophages, a type of specialized immune cell, than ambient air–the level of cytotoxicity being a result of oxidative stress. Babies are particularly affected by this due to their developing lungs and exposure to extreme smoke toxicity.

Pregnant women, children, people with asthma, heart disease, and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease should be particularly careful about their exposure to air pollution as they are even more vulnerable to the negative impacts.

Smoke from wildfires can travel thousands of miles, so even if you are not near a fire it is important to be aware and take the right precautions to protect you and your family’s health.

Wildfires can be traumatic events even if you aren’t experiencing it first-hand, affecting mental health both physically and emotionally. Smoke is an excitatory neurotoxin that can make you anxious, so it’s important to be aware of your behavior and emotions. The experience of a wildfire can be extremely stressful, causing post-traumatic stress and depression.

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Here’s What You Can Do

Stay aware. Look at the AQI on your Apple weather app or download AirVisual (our favorite air quality app so far, which also shows projections and wind patterns). And keep up-to-date with the country-wide Fire and Smoke Hazard Mapping System.

Clear the air. Close all windows and doors in your home, and utilize HEPA air filters and purifiers to keep as much pollution out as possible. N95 masks can also be used to reduce the inhalation of pollutants.

Stay indoors. Exercise inside when the air quality is over 50, or even lower than that. Start to notice how various levels of AQI affect your health: reduced lung capacity, coughing, higher heart rate, headaches and nausea, or if you get a stuffed up nose.

Mitigate fire risk. If you have any type of trees or plants around your home, manage the debris and any other fuels responsibly.

If you see something, say something. There have been people arrested for starting some of the worst wildfires we’re seeing this year. If you see something suspicious, call your local authorities and report the situation immediately.

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