Dry conditions and dying vegetation can increase the chances of wildfires throughout large portions of the U.S. Living and working either in or within close proximity to wilderness areas can lead to a wide range of health conditions.
There are several dangers associated with exposure to smoke from fires — especially for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Understanding how to prevent wildfire smoke exposure, monitor conditions and stay alert and safe is crucial if you’re in an area that commonly experiences wildfires.
Table of Contents
- The Makeup of Wildfire Smoke and the Symptoms It Can Cause
- Who Is Most at Risk?
- Preventative Measures Against Wildfire Smoke
- Learn How to Stay Safe and Compliant With the Hazmat School
The Makeup of Wildfire Smoke and the Symptoms It Can Cause
Wildfire smoke contains a mixture of gases and fine particles. These particles result from burning vegetation like trees and plants, building supplies or other kinds of materials.
Within the smoke, billions of tiny solid and liquid particles stay suspended in the air, traveling for miles. When someone breathes this smoke in, the particles can irritate your eyes and reach deep into your lung tissues. You might experience inflammation and respiratory system irritation that makes breathing difficult, especially for those with allergies, asthma or lung diseases. Even healthy individuals will begin experiencing symptoms if there is a lot of smoke in the air.
Wildfire smoke also contains carbon monoxide (CO). When this colorless and odorless gas is inhaled, it reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to the body’s tissues and organs, leading to symptoms ranging from headaches to dizziness. High concentrations of this gas can lead to death.
Another danger of wildfire smoke is that it can spread air pollutants and emissions. These fires release significant amounts of black carbon, brown carbon and carbon dioxide, which cause a negative impact on the air quality and climate.
There are several symptoms associated with exposure to wildfire smoke. Some of the most common wildfire smoke inhalation symptoms include:
- Asthma attacks.
- Chest pain.
- Fast heartbeat.
- Irritated sinuses.
- Runny nose.
- Shortness of breath.
- Stinging eyes.
- Difficulty breathing normally.
Who Is Most at Risk?
While anyone can experience harmful side effects, there are certain groups of individuals who are more at risk from inhaling wildfire smoke. Those most at risk include:
- People with allergies: People who have allergies tend to already have inflamed airways. Breathing in the particles produced from wildfire smoke can cause further irritation. Even when exposed to low levels of smoke, it can result in worse symptoms and lead to an asthma attack.
- Pregnant women: During pregnancy, women experience many changes, one of which is increased breathing rates. Along with making it even harder to breathe, the smoke can potentially lead to negative health effects on the fetus. There’s the potential for either preterm birth or having a baby with a low birth weight.
- Children: Since a young child’s airways and respiratory system are still developing, they breathe in more air per pound of bodyweight than adults do. If the air is polluted with wildfire smoke, they’ll also be breathing in more of the harmful particles and gases.
- People with heart or lung problems: Having heart problems such as ischemic heart disease or heart failure can be a risk factor. When exposed to wildfire smoke, these individuals may begin to experience symptoms like shortness of breath, palpitations and chest pain. Similarly, having lung problems such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema is also a risk factor. These individuals may have more difficulty breathing and experience symptoms ranging from phlegm to wheezing.
- Older adults: Older adults are more likely to have either heart or lung disease, which in turn makes them more susceptible to the negative effects of wildfire smoke.
- People with diabetes: Diabetes is often associated with underlying cardiovascular diseases. These heart conditions make wildfire smoke inhalation potentially more dangerous for those patients.
Of course, firefighters, specifically wildland firefighters, are at high risk due to prolonged smoke exposure and inhalation. Specific responsibilities, such as maintaining the fire in the designated firelines, increase the rate of exposure.
Preventative Measures Against Wildfire Smoke
There are several preventive measures you can take to reduce the harmful health effects caused by inhaling wildfire smoke. Wherever you’re located, if wildfires are common, you need to be prepared before the fire happens. This preparation can involve:
- Having several routes and ways to leave the area.
- Knowing where shelter locations are.
- Creating a plan for both people and animals.
- Having necessary and emergency supplies and respirators ready.
- Being alert to any nearby fires by monitoring sites like AirNow and NOAA.
Other measures you can take to stay safe include:
- Consulting your local visibility guides to keep track of the level of particles in the air. Checking these guides will let you know how far you’ll be able to see as well as how dangerous the air is to be breathing in.
- Monitoring air quality ratings and staying up-to-date on local public health messages about smoke and safety measures.
- Staying indoors as much as possible if there is a lot of smoke or any nearby fires. This action helps to reduce exposure risks.
- Keeping an inhaler on hand if you need one as well as any necessary medications if you have a pre-existing condition.
- Keeping windows and doors closed to ensure the indoor air quality is protected. You can keep your air conditioner running as long as the filter is clean and you keep the fresh-air intake closed.
- Using a high-efficiency particulate air filter if you have one.
- Avoiding contributing to indoor air pollution by limiting aerosol sprays, burning candles or vacuuming. Using a gas stove or turning on the fireplace can also increase pollution.
- Minimizing both indoor and outdoor exercise and exertion.
- Showering and changing your clothes if you go outside.
- Using the proper type of masks. Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks will not filter out particles and keep your lungs protected. Use a securely fitted N95 mask instead.
- Seeking medical help at the first signs of trouble or if you begin experiencing symptoms.
Learn How to Stay Safe and Compliant With the Hazmat School
Whether you’re a firefighter or work in areas where wildfires are common, the Hazmat School offers the courses and safety training you need to stay safe and remain in compliance with OSHA, DOT and EPA requirements. We serve over 20,000 students each year, helping build a comprehensive safety culture and delivering the highest quality learning experiences — all for a great value. With experienced remote instructors available 24/7, you’ll have support when you need it most every step of the way.
Are you ready to get started? Reach out today to learn more about what we do or enroll in one of our courses.