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Even if you don't live in an area prone to wildfires, your health may be threatened by smoke from fires raging in other parts of the country. New NRDC analysis shows that about two-thirds of the United States -- nearly 212 million people -- lived in counties affected by smoke conditions in 2011. And climate change will make matters worse: hotter temperatures and longer dry seasons in summer create conditions that can lead to more frequent wildfires.

The link between wildfires and climate is well established in the United States: numerous studies show that drought and fire have gone hand in hand across many parts of the west. In 2011 and 2012, as much of the United States experienced intense drought, there were record-breaking wildfires in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado; in 2012, Colorado fires destroyed more than 700 homes. Wildfires and smoke are expected to increase over time with climate change.

Wildfires Can Have Serious Health Impacts

Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause serious health problems, such as asthma attacks and pneumonia, and can worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. People with respiratory problems like asthma or with heart disease are particularly vulnerable, as are people living in areas with high levels of particulate pollution from roadways and industrial sources. The very youngest are also at risk: lower birth weights are found among babies born to mothers exposed to wildfire smoke during pregnancy. Even otherwise-healthy people may experience minor symptoms, such as sore throats and itchy eyes.

Because smoke can harm respiratory health for millions more people in addition to the thousands affected directly by wildfires, action is needed to prepare communities to react quickly when wildfires do occur. Communities must protect themselves and vulnerable residents from escalating risks by planning for the health impacts of wildfire smoke in the face of a changing climate.

Protect Your Community and Your Family from Wildfires and Smoke

At the community level:

  • Establish more active daily or continuous monitoring sites and monitoring programs in areas prone to fire and smoke problems to help give people early warning of growing health threats. Online information systems and public advisories like EPA's Air Quality Index (AQI) are posted daily at AirNow. These provide people with daily updates on local air quality, and when conditions may pose health risks to different vulnerable groups.
  • Identify who the most smoke-vulnerable people are and where they live -- people with asthma and other respiratory diseases, with cardiovascular illness, the elderly, children, pregnant women, and people who smoke -- to help target public health campaigns to reach them before wildfire season, and again when fire and smoke strike.
  • Develop and issue pre-fire season public service announcements by state and local public health agencies in areas where fires are likely to occur, can advise people on ways to prepare. It is a good idea to have several days' supplies of food that doesn't require cooking, stocks of any needed medications, and a home evacuation plan.
  • Make climate change preparedness a national priority, so that residents of every state -- fire states and smoke-affected states alike -- can become healthier and more secure communities. Currently, only about one-third of states have health protections represented in their climate adaptation plans. With fire, smoke, and other air pollution threats increasingly affected by climate change, we must do better.
  • Limit the heat-trapping carbon pollution that causes climate change, to limit climate change at its source and reduce its effects in fueling the drought and heat that worsen wildfire risks.

For your family:

  • Stay alert and regularly check local news and air quality reports for health warnings due to wildfire smoke.
  • Avoid physical activity outside and stay indoors when air quality reports are poor, or if it looks smoky outside.
  • When outside conditions are smoky, keep smoke levels inside your house low by keeping windows closed and running the air conditioner on "recirculate." Avoid using anything that creates indoor smoke, such as fireplaces or candles.

last revised 10/24/2013

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