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How Does Forest Fire Smoke Harm People's Health?

Coconino National Forest

Wildfire seasons in the West are growing longer and more intense. So more prescribed burns are happening to protect forest towns in places like northern Arizona. That can be hard on the health of residents and firefighters. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, not much is known about the long-term effects of breathing forest fire smoke.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Michael Vaughn

Cars whoosh by the tiny general store in Mountainaire south of Flagstaff. Michael Vaughn of the Coconino National Forest passes out flyers during a prescribed burn. "It got socked in here pretty good last night, unfortunately," he says. The haze of smoke makes eyes itch and throats sting.

Vaughn tells residents to stay indoors if they can. "If they’re unusually sensitive they may have to leave the area for a couple of days while the smoke clears."   

Credit Coconino National Forest
A prescribed burn near Flagstaff

Forest fire smoke is a health hazard for everyone—but especially for people like Stephanie Schiff. She’s had asthma since childhood. She moved from Phoenix to Munds Park last year; and says now instead of pollen, she has to deal with fire. She says, "The first time that I was in a prescribed burn was last fall. I didn’t go out in the morning and my husband took the dogs. He came back in the house and said, 'Pack up, we’re leaving, there’s all kinds of smoke.'" 

Schiff keeps a to-go bag packed with a nebulizer and medicine to help her breathe. But even though prescribed burns drive her from her home, she thinks they’re a good idea.  

"There’s a street behind us, and then a row of houses on the other side of the street, and then that’s forest," she says. "If the forest ever did go crazy, I’m right here."    

A wealth of scientific data shows prescribed burns reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. So overall they protect lives and property. But it’s not a perfect solution. Smoke can settle into communities and it’s full of toxins and fine particles that penetrate deep into the lungs.

"Kind of similar to cigarette smoke," says Flagstaff pulmologist Douglas Mapel. "If you were exposed every day, it would be like smoking a pack or two every day."  

Credit Coconino National Forest
The Freidlein Fire in 2017

Dr. Mapel sees more patients than usual on smoky days. Some are firefighters or have chronic conditions. Others are experiencing an asthma attack for the first time. He says, "If you find yourself constantly coughing, hacking, can’t breathe—waking up at night especially cause you’re short of breath or coughing—that’s a very bad sign." 

There’s very little research on the long-term health effects of exposure to forest fire smoke. But preliminary data from a study underway by the U.S. Forest Service suggest a 25-year career in firefighting leads to a 43 percent increase in the risk of lung cancer and a 30 percent increase in cardiovascular mortality.

Credit David Manning
David Manning, 1984

It’s a bleak outlook for longtime firefighters like David Manning. He says, "I’m 58 years old. Statistically I may or may not see my 70th birthday." 

Manning joined a hotshot crew when he was 18. He says respiratory masks made it too hard to breathe. So when smoke got bad, they tied wet bandanas over their faces. "We’d get a good lungful and you’d be coughing black sooty material for days after being on a really hot and heavy fire assignment. But it was never anything that raised a great alarm with us, because it was just the job." 

Credit David Manning
Manning's hotshot crew, 1984

New research is leading to recommendations for reducing smoke exposure—like rotating crews more often and limiting shift lengths. But practical solutions are hard to find. Manning says firefighters can’t leave the line when there’s a prescribed burn to finish or a wildfire to put out.  

Manning says, "I realize that—this is not a rehearsal, this life that I’m on. Firefighters…. we all come to that understanding at a point. It ends up being part of that sacrifice we made to serve our country and our communities." 

And it’s part of what it means to live in a forest, where fire happens one way or another.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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