WESTERN U.S. – As the length and severity of wildfire continues to grow with each passing season in the Pacific Northwest, so too does the public’s risk of prolonged exposure to the smoke they produce.
Unlike those who deal with these effects in the community at large, wildland firefighters do not have the option of reducing their subjection to such conditions, and that fact is causing some to question what the long-term impacts of these factors might be.
“People are now aware that they probably shouldn’t stand in the smoke if they don’t have to,” said Mike DeGrosky, Fire Protection Bureau chief with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting. “People know to minimize smoke exposure out on the line when people are working. But the reality is they work in a very, very smoky environment and that smoke has lingering health effects.”
“I don’t think we’ve really looked at the long term — for example, cancer consequences of chronic smoke exposure — like the structural fire world has,” he said.
Studies have already shown the ill effects that smoke can have on structural firefighters over time, including those related to cancer, heart and lung disease, and even mental health issues, but the impacts of smoke on wildland firefighters has remained largely un-researched.
“Everyone used to say, ‘It’s just a barbecue fire. It’s just, you know, wood. It’s no big deal,’” said Rick Swan, director of health and safety occupational services for the International Association of Firefighters.
Despite this longstanding notion, however, it has now been scientifically proven that wildfire smoke contains a variety of hazardous compounds which are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including such toxic agents as carbon monoxide, acrolein, nitrogen dioxide, benzene and formaldehyde, all of which can cause immediate health issues and are suspected to pose a potentially greater risk if inhaled over a longer period of time.
In addition to their inability to escape and shelter from smoky conditions, wildland firefighters are also issued a limited amount of gear for respiratory protection. The bandana is the only currently recommended safeguard for frontline personnel to carry and many health organizations, including the EPA, say this measure does not actually help in reducing the risks associated with smoke exposure.
Unfortunately, the issue of respiratory safety for wildland firefighters is filled with complexities and basic instruments like the common N95 respirator cannot withstand the intense, physical demands of a wildland firefighter, while larger apparatus such as the respirators used by structural firefighters are bulky and cumbersome and can only supply clean air for brief periods of time and would easily fail to provide enough protection during the standard 12-hour shift of a wildland firefighter.
Only recently have federal agencies began considering what the long-term effects of smoke exposure on wildland firefighters might be.
This group of workers is difficult to study for many reasons, including the seasonal and part-time nature of the work, its physical demands, and the young age demographics of most who are employed in this field. There is also few, if any other jobs which can provide a contrasting agent for researchers to use when conducting a study, due to the unusually-lengthy hours and high-level exertion wildland firefighters experience when working.
“We know that wildland firefighters experience a range of exposures, not just smoke but disrupted sleep, working under intense conditions, and difficult terrain,” said Curtis Noonan an epidemiologist at the University of Montana. “And so we know all of these exposures are associated with health outcomes, but they just haven’t been looked at yet for wildland firefighters.”
Noonan is currently researching these health considerations along with his colleague Erin Semmens.
“What does fighting fires season after season, year after year do to the long-term health of a firefighter? We’re specifically interested in respiratory health and cardiovascular health, as well as hearing,” said Semmens.
Noonan and Semmens are utilizing medical records and employment statistics provided by the Interior Department as part of their study. This data includes information from the wildland firefighters required three-year physicals, along with the number days and hours they have worked and which fires they were assigned to.
“So if they’re seeing some cardiovascular impacts, maybe that is something that needs to be screened more frequently,” said Semmens.
The research is merely preliminary, however, and what the long-term effects of wildfire smoke on the men and women who bravely fight them might be will take decades to conclusively uncover.