Wildfires: Where There’s Smoke, There’s Pollution

By Donna Kemp Spangler

Wildfire season is in full swing, most notably in central and southern Utah, where firefighters continue to battle several stubborn wildfires. Although individuals along the Wasatch Front may not be directly impacted by the wildfires burning south of here, the smoke from fires can have a serious impact on health.

As the Communications Director for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), I often get questions about whether the wildfires – near and afar – impact our air quality. The answer is yes, and maybe, depending on how close you live in the vicinity of the fire burning, and the direction of the wind movement.

Wildfire smoke is composed of a complex mixture of gases, fine particles, and water vapor that form when organic matter burns. Particulates from smoke are a mixture of sold particles – pieces of wood and other burning solids – and liquid droplets. They tend to be quite small, generally less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or approximately 1/70th the size of a human hair.

The biggest threat from smoke comes from fine particles. Because they lodge more deeply in the lungs, they are a greater health concern than larger particles. Fine particulates get into the eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. They can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases.

5July2016-saddle-fire-USFS

Saddle Fire near St. George. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service

Additionally, the incomplete burning of wood and other organic materials produces carbon monoxide, a gas in smoke. Its levels are highest during the smoldering stages of a fire.

It’s important that individuals limit their exposure to smoke – especially if they are susceptible. Here are some steps people can take to protect themselves from smoke:

  • Pay attention to air quality reports. The Division of Air Quality uses color-coded categories and air quality action alerts to report when air quality is good, moderate, and unhealthy for sensitive individuals, unhealthy, or very unhealthy.
  • Use common sense. If it looks and smells smoky outside, it is probably not a good time to go for a jog, mow the lawn or allow children to play outdoors.
  • If a person has heart or lung disease, is an older adult, or has children, they should talk with their health care provider about necessary actions that should be taken during a wildfire event.
  • When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though a person may not see them. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside.
  • Paper “comfort” or “dust masks” are not the answer. The kinds of masks that people can commonly buy at the hardware store are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. But they generally will not protect lungs from the fine particles in smoke.
Want to know more? Check out our Wildfires webpage. The Center for Disease Control and the AirNow Smoke Index also offer great information about wildfire smoke that you can use to protect your health and the health of your family.

Donna SpanglerDonna Spangler is the Communications Director for DEQ and a former reporter for the Deseret News. Donna writes a monthly blog post. You can read her previous blog posts at dequtah.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter @deqdonna

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