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Home / Health / More forest fires focus on how all this smoke can harm firefighters: NPR

More forest fires focus on how all this smoke can harm firefighters: NPR



Firefighters working on forest fires and prescribed burns (shown here) may be exposed to high levels of harmful smoke.

Jes Burns / OPB


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Jes Burns / OPB

Firefighters working on forest fires and prescribed burns (see picture) may be exposed to high levels of harmful smoke.

Jes Burns / OPB

When Timothy Ingalsbee thinks back to his time in the 1980s and 1990s when he fought forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, he remembers the adventure of jumping from a helicopter into the wilderness and the camaraderie of a fire brigade his. [19659008] "We just slept in one pile," he says, "on the ground under the stars, or a smoke-filled sky."

But Ingalsbee, who later founded the Eugene-based organization Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, does not like remembering all this smoke.

Some seasons, he says, I have lost my sense of smell and taste for a few months. It was not until maybe next spring when it started to come back. "

As forest fires have become more frequent and intense in recent years, communities have complained about the health effects of all this smoke and smoke making economic hit for recreation and tourism." Residents, however, may seek relief by staying indoors and air filters or use masks.

These are not options for wildfire firefighters who fight these flames or use prescribed burns to prevent them. They endure smoky conditions that are rarely encountered in residential areas, and it is one Occupational hazards that scientists and fire companies are just starting to understand.

Long exposure hours with limited protection [19659008] The dangers for those who fight fires in buildings have long been known. Studies have shown that they are at increased risk for cancer, heart and lung disease, and even mental health problems, says Rick Swan, a 30-year veteran of CalFire and director of health and safety at the International Association of Firefighters, a union.

Wildland firefighters, however, were largely excluded from the research.

"Everyone said: It's just a barbecue fire, it's just, you know, wood, it's not a big deal," he says. 19659008] It is known that the smoke from forest fires is full of compounds and components that are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Forest fire fighters and teams are exposed to particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs. They inhale carbon monoxide, which can lead to significant and immediate loss of cognitive function.

In addition, the smoke contains a variety of other toxins such as acrolein, nitrogen dioxide, benzene and formaldehyde. There is also the possibility of exposure to smoke, which is mixed with chemicals from herbicides that were applied in the forest before the fire.

Researchers at the US Joint Fire Science Program have found that workers are exposed to the highest levels of particulate matter when they burn a fire, holding the fire lines in their hands and working with the mop-up.

And the smoke exposure often does not end in the fire zone.

is said to rest, "says Ingalsbee, who often houses and feeds firefighters and relief workers in valleys where devastating smoke can accumulate.

" They watch in the firehouse with coughing and chopping People on, "he says." They call it Camp Crud. "

Despite all this, wildlife firefighters have limited personal respiratory protection equipment.

" This is 2019. We used a bandana because I do not know how many decades, and that's the best we have to offer? "Swan says."

A bandana is the only respirator recommended for firefighters, and the EPA and many other health authorities warn that this will not help reduce particle exposure.

However, experts say it's not an easy alternative The N95 respirators, available to the general public, can not withstand the intense conditions of a fire, and the respirators used by structural firefighters are heavy, interfere with visibility, and can only provide clean air for a short time 12 hours.

In addition, "their airway requirements are similar to those attending sports events," says Mike DeGrosky, head of the fire department's Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. "You put any kind of restriction on your nose and mouth and reduce it Your oxygen intake, what your muscle ability reduced their cognitive abilities. "

Investigation of long-term consequences

Recently, the federal fire authorities have begun to investigate the long-term health effects of chronic smoke exposure among forest fire fighters.

A 2017 review of research The exposure to fouling smoke by the Joint Fire Science Program identified "largely unknown effects", although an analysis carried out during the review found that "inhaled particles risk premature mortality due to heart disease or cancer can increase ".

Wildland firefighters are a hard-to-investigate group, due in part to the nature of the work itself. They often work seasonal or part-time. The work is physically exhausting and many do not stick to it in the long run.

"We know that wildfire firefighters are exposed to a variety of stresses, not just smoke, but also sleep disturbances that occur in intense conditions and on difficult terrain." Curtis Noonan, epidemiologist at the University of Montana. "So we know that all these exposures have health implications, but they have not been investigated for forest fire fighters."

Noonan and his colleague Erin Semmens are investigating some of these health consequences.

Interior Ministry firefighters undergo a full physical strain every three years. Researchers use this medical records and employment data to show how many days and years firefighters have been working on fires to establish connections.

"So if they notice cardiovascular effects, this may need to be checked more often," says Semmens.

In the meantime, the forest fire fighters are facing a new fire season.

Finding a Cultural Change

Swan, the union's security director, would like to see this more explicitly focused on the experience of those exposed to smoke at prescribed burns, fires aimed at fueling larger outbreaks to reduce.

Joint Fire Science Program firefighters, including the US Forest Service, have determined that exposures of prescribed firefighters to particulates are likely to exceed recommended occupational exposure limits.

Oregon Public Broadcasting was denied access to a US Forest Service mandatory fire near Ashland for this story. And Swan says he has generally disliked dealing with respiratory protection. "Many people stick their heads in the sand," he says.

In part, he accuses a culture that glorifies the image of a "real" firefighter: dirty and willing and able to work long hours. despite what it can mean for long-term health. "This culture puts us in more trouble than anything else," says Swan. "It does not allow us to clear ourselves out of the way."

Nevertheless, things are changing slowly.

For the first time this year, the National Group, responsible for the development of forest fire training materials, has unified the dangers of smoke exposure as part of its annual health and safety refresher course.

Last year, President Trump signed a bill to create a "national firefighting register" to help the Centers for Disease Control find employment links and cancer exposures. Congress approved $ 1 million to implement the program.

The International Fire Brigade Association claims to work with the US government to ensure that the term "firefighter" is used as loosely as possible.

Ingalsbee, the former Northwest firefighter says he has not regretted making forest fires and handling the smoke, though he has noticed that his own lung capacity suffers considerably since he left the forest.

Make sure forest firefighters are protected not only at work, but also long after the end of their careers.

"Veterans of military conflicts receive health care long after they no longer have a uniform," he says. "Maybe our devastating warriors should get medical treatment if they do not have a uniform anymore."

The coverage for this story was supported by the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources.


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