You’ve seen news coverage of wildfires everywhere within the past year, from the Amazon rainforest to California to Australia. And now, you want to know how these flames can affect people’s health and what proactive steps you can take for when they happen again.
Whether you live in a location with frequent wildfires or not, these are frightening occurrences. If you have children or elderly parents or grandparents, you’ll want to be well-informed since those two groups are the most at risk.
How Wildfires Start
Wildfires are large, uncontrolled fires that spread rapidly in areas like the woodlands or brush. The Amazon wildfires and Australian bushfires are only two examples of how destructive and deadly they can be.
Wildfires impact our health in numerous ways, and not just physically — our mental health suffers, too. With each subsequent blaze, we only become more at-risk. The climate crisis plays a major role in this risk. As global warming continues to worsen, these fires will become harsher and more frequent.
In recent years, wildfires have burned millions of acres, peaking at over 10 million in 2015 alone. As the planet warms, winters become less cold, causing earlier snow melts. This phenomenon leads to drier soil for longer periods, resulting in increased droughts. Wildfires then thrive in these dry areas.
Of course, more moderate locations that don’t get snow or heavy rain seasons will have drier soil year-round. If you live in California, for instance, you know the igniting effects droughts can have on fires. For example, a five-year drought in Lake County, California, aided in starting and spreading a wildfire that burned 50,000 acres in 24 hours.
People living in the proximity of wildfires like those aren’t the only ones at risk. Have blazes that weren’t in your state, or even your country, affected you? Smoke from these fires can travel hundreds of miles. Flames in northern Canada can impact states like Minnesota or the Dakotas. The health effects are numerous and prominent, but recognizing the signs and threats can keep you safe.
Health Impacts of Wildfires
As we know, wildfires don’t only destroy the environment — our health is also at stake. One of the most prominent threats from wildfire smoke is particle pollution. Particles are a mix of solids and liquids that linger in the air. These mixtures become more dangerous when they contain harmful substances. In general, particle pollution is everywhere and not necessarily an issue.
The problem arises when particle pollution results from wildfires and becomes unavoidable, particularly as still air can create issues with bacteria in people’s homes, so ventilation is key. However, when the air someone is allowing in their home is also unhealthy, they may face even worse side effects. Wildfire particle contamination can contain acids, inorganic compounds, chemicals, dust particles and substances like mold. Ingesting or inhaling these particulates can have detrimental side effects. They can cause or worsen asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, which can be potentially deadly. What makes them more dangerous is that, though sometimes they’re large enough to notice, these particles are often too small to see.
Another issue arises from carbon monoxide. This pollutant can be a common issue in households and is the reason why we need those loud CO2 detectors. Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas, which is why it’s so hazardous. We don’t know when we’re near it or inhaling it. It reduces oxygen in the body and can lead to nausea, dizziness, headaches and sometimes even death.
Wildfires release a great deal of carbon monoxide. And since we know smoke can travel for miles, so can carbon monoxide. CO2 can progress from California to the east coast and linger for about a month. When this gas moves into the atmosphere, it contributes significantly to the greenhouse gas effect, worsening global warming. You’ll notice that this is a cycle. As global warming worsens, more wildfires spread that release carbon monoxide, which affects the climate and so on.
Nitrogen oxides and formaldehyde are just a couple more examples of toxins originating from these deadly fires. Smoke causes harm, but the flames themselves can lead to physical scarring and irreversible burns. While children and the elderly are at a higher risk, these chemicals and dangers can affect anyone. Firefighters also face health concerns. Their frequent exposure can cause heat-related injuries or illnesses.
Other consequences include lung inflammation and respiratory issues. Vehicle injuries can occur, too, when driving or flying vehicles in or around the fires. The effects spread to your mental health as well. Healthcare systems are seeing an increase in people seeking counseling or medication after a traumatic wildfire. Though we can’t always predict fires, we have ways to prepare for them.
Preparing for Wildfires
With every fire, we need to reevaluate health concerns. High-risk areas are coming up with plans. For instance, California has established preparedness tips for the next blaze. But there’s always the question — will it be enough?
Caregivers see high volumes of people needing physical or mental health treatments after a wildfire. Doctors and nurses should have readily available supplies and equipment during these times. It’s also vital for you to have similar resources — supplies can go a long way. In general, emergency kits include everything you need during a time of crisis.
When a wildfire strikes, depending on proximity, the safest thing to do might be to evacuate. In other instances, listen to what firefighters and officials are saying. It may be best to stay inside with the doors and windows closed. If you remain indoors, having air filtration devices can keep the air clean and breathable. Smoke causes wheezing or shortness of breath, a sore throat and burning eyes. These are signs that your air isn’t breathable.
Your family’s health is your biggest concern. Wildfires are a growing product of worsening global warming, and they aren’t slowing down. States and countries often declare public emergencies when large blazes spread, and it’s crucial to listen to these warnings to protect your family.
Protect Yourself Against the Blaze
Living near wildfire-prone areas is scary, but you don’t have to live in fear. Any proactive steps you take to protect your family’s health will help provide a cleaner, safer environment for them to live in.