Wildfires have generally been considered the price of living in the rugged and scenic Far West and Southwest. If the fires were health hazards, they were dismissed as local ones.
Recent research has shown wildfires are becoming a national health menace, especially considering that a third of Americans have breathing or heart problems that put them at risk from the fine particulates – soot – from a wildfire that can travel thousands of miles.
The problem will only intensify. As the climate gets warmer and drier, wildfires will cover larger areas, generate more smoke and become more difficult to contain in fire seasons that are beginning to last longer. The number of fires has remained relatively constant – roughly 74,000 a year – but the number of acres burned has risen. More than 7 million acres burned in eight of the last 12 years.
It doesn’t help that people insist on living in wooded areas Mother Nature never intended as subdivisions. The pollution from the Colorado wildfires of last spring exceeded the worst pollution on record in such notoriously smog-shrouded cities as Beijing, Mexico City and Los Angeles.
Russia’s top pulmonary scientist, Dr. Alexander Chuchalin, compared the effects of the 2010 wildfires outside Moscow to the effects of smoking two packs of cigarettes within two or three hours.
As usual, children and the elderly are the most at risk from the main culprit, fine particulate matter that goes deep in the lungs. By fine, the scientists mean particles a fraction of the width of a human hair. The particles and other hazards, like ozone pollution, can be there even when there’s no visible smoke.
Larger fires mean larger smoke plumes traveling farther, meaning families living where there is no immediate threat to life or property, who live out of sight, out of mind from the wildfires, far enough not even to smell the smoke, are still at risk from the pollution the fires throw up.
The science is getting better, but less than a third of all U.S. counties have air-quality monitors, and even fewer, even in the danger zones, have smoke emergency plans or ready access to enough soot-filtering masks.
With the reach of fire pollutants spreading nationwide through the atmosphere, the old adage needs to be revised: Just because there’s not smoke doesn’t mean there’s no fire, even half a continent away.