Western Fires Are a Large Public Health Threat Beyond the Region

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A helicopter drops water on the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado. Photo by USDAGov under Creative Commons licensing, on Flickr.

It’s heartbreaking to watch footage and see photos of the fires rampaging across Colorado and Utah. People are losing their homes, towns are being destroyed, neighborhoods evacuated, firefighters and other emergency responders are stressed to the max. 

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Colorado High Park Fire. Photo by The National Guard under Creative Commons licensing, on Flickr.

Continuing dry conditions, winds and high heat are only making the situation worse. You can read and see more about this here, here and here.

But one aspect of the blazes has not been widely covered, and that is the public health threat posed by smoke to people many miles away from the fires. The Center for Disease Control reports that smoke from wildfires can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. People with heart disease might experience chest pain, shortness of breath and fatigue when they come in contact with smoke while those with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma may experience the inability to breathe normally, wheezing and chest discomfort.

From the CDC website:

Who is at greatest risk from wildfire smoke?

  • People who have heart or lung diseases, like congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including emphysema), or asthma, are at higher risk from wildfire smoke. In general, people with these conditions are at higher risk of having health problems than healthy people.
  • Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke. This may be due to their increased risk of heart and lung diseases.
  • Children are more likely to be affected by health threats from smoke. Children's airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. In addition, children often spend more time outdoors engaged in activity and play.

The Environmental Protection Agency explains that the biggest threat from smoke comes from fine particles which can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose and illnesses such as bronchitis. Fine particles can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases – and even are linked to premature death in people with these conditions.

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Colorado High Park Wildfire. Photo by USDAGov under Creative Commons licensing, on Flickr.

Though we cannot connect these specific fires and all of the conditions that caused them to climate change, what we’re seeing now foreshadows what we’ll see as climate disruption worsens.