Forest Fire Smoke and Your Health Fact Sheet
Incident: Moquah Blocks F and J Prescribed Fire
FOREST FIRE SMOKE AND YOUR HEALTH
What’s in smoke from a forest fire
Smoke is made up small particles, gases and water vapor. Water vapor makes up the majority of smoke. The remainder includes carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, irritant volatile organic compounds, air toxics and very small particles.
Is smoke bad for me
Yes. It’s a good idea to avoid breathing smoke if you can help it. If you are healthy, you usually are not at a major risk from smoke. But there are people who are at risk, including people with heart or lung diseases, such as congestive heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma. Children and the elderly also are more susceptible to smoke.
What can I do to protect myself
Particulate matter, or PM (tiny particles) is one of the biggest dangers from smoke. As smoke gets worse, the amount of particulate in the air increases and the more effort you should put toward protecting yourself.
Use common sense. If it looks smoky outside, that’s probably not a good time to go for a run. And it’s probably a good time for your children to remain indoors.
If you would rather stay indoors, keep your windows and doors closed. Keep all fresh air intakes closed.
Help keep particle levels inside lower by avoiding using anything that burns, such as wood stoves and gas stoves – even candles. And don’t smoke. That puts even more pollution in your lungs – and those of the people around you.
If you have asthma, be vigilant about taking your medicines, as prescribed by your doctor. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
How can I tell when smoke levels are dangerous I don’t live near a monitor.
Generally, the worse the visibility, the worse the smoke. In the west, visibility is used to help you gauge forest fire smoke/particulate levels. An example is attached to this fact sheet.
How do I know if I’m being affected
You may have a scratchy throat, cough, irritated sinuses, headaches, runny nose and stinging eyes. Children and people with lung diseases such as asthma may find it difficult to breathe as deeply or vigorously as normally, and they may cough or feel short of breath. People with diseases such as asthma or chronic bronchitis may find their symptoms worsening.
Are the effects of smoke permanent
Healthy adults generally find that their symptoms (runny noses, coughing, etc.) disappear after the smoke is gone.
Do air filters help
They do. Indoor air filtration devices with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can reduce the levels of particles indoors. Make sure to change your HEPA filter regularly. Don’t use an air cleaner that works by generating ozone. That puts more pollution in your home.
Do dust masks help
Paper “comfort” or “nuisance” masks are designed to trap large dust particles not the tiny particles found in smoke. These masks generally will NOT protect your lungs from forest fire smoke.
How long is the smoke going to last
That depends on a number of factors, including the size of the fire, the number of fires in the area, fire behavior, weather and topography. Smoke can travel long distances, so fires in other areas can affect smoke levels in your area. For this burn smoke should only last a couple days at most.
I’m concerned about what the smoke is doing to my animals. What can I do
The same particles that cause problems for people may cause some problems for animals. Don’t force your animals to run or work in smoky conditions. Contact your veterinarian or county extension office for more information.
How does smoke harm my health
One of the biggest dangers of smoke comes from particulate matter solid particles and liquid droplets found in air. In smoke, these particles often are very tiny, smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. How small is that Think of this: the diameter of the average human hair is about 30 times bigger.
These particles can build up in your respiratory system, causing a number of health problems, including burning eyes, runny noses and illnesses such as bronchitis. The particles also can aggravate heart and lung diseases, such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and asthma.
What about firefighters
Firefighters do experience short-term effects of smoke, such as stinging, watery eyes, coughing and runny noses. Firefighters must be in good physical condition, which helps to offset adverse effects of smoke.
Will it not be as smoky when firefighters are working on prescribed fires versus wildfires
Yes, it should less smoky. Land managers are able to plan for prescribed fires. They get to choose the areas they want to burn, the size of those areas and the weather and wind conditions that must exist before they begin burning. This allows them to control the fire more easily and limit its size. Those choices don’t exist with wildfires. In addition, wildfires that start in areas that haven’t been managed with prescribed fire often have more fuel, because vegetation in the forest understory has built up, and dead vegetation has not been removed.
Why don’t the firefighters do something about the smoke
Firefighters have a number of priorities in conducting a burn. Sometimes the conditions that are good for keeping the air clear of smoke can be bad for containing fires. A windy day, for example, helps smoke disperse. But it can help a fire burn too hot and spread.
Firefighters do try to manage smoke. As they develop their prescription for a burn, firefighters consider fire behavior and weather forecasts, topography and proximity to communities – all factors than can affect smoke.
How do you measure the quality of the air
There are no permanently installed monitors to continuously measure the amount of particulates in the air near the burn. The closest is in Duluth. The data from this monitor can be viewed at http://aqi.pca.state.mn.us/ . The Forest Service will also be using portable particulate monitors during the prescribed burns to measure air quality. The data from these monitors can be viewed at http://www.wrcc.dri.edu/cgi-bin/smoke.pl The amount of particulate, measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air, can be approximately compared to a value designed to protect public health of 35 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a 24-hour period.
Why does the amount of smoke change each day
The amount of smoke depends on where you live, the weather during the day and the amount of fuel (trees, brush, etc.) available to be burned. More than likely the amount of smoke you experience will vary each day as these factors change. It is important to remember that if you live in an area where fire has always been part of the ecosystem, you can expect fire and smoke from time to time. You can protect yourself and your property by following good fire prevention measures. We never will eliminate fire and smoke from these natural systems.
I have additional questions, who can I call
You can call the Washburn Ranger District at (715)373-2667.
This document was originally prepared in August, 2000 by the Air Program, U.S. Forest Service – Region 1, with assistance from the Office of AQPS in the US EPA. It was later modified by the Superior and Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forests.
Using Visibility to Estimate Health Effects
Visibility in Miles
10 miles and up
6 to 9 miles
Possibility of aggravation of heart or lung disease among persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly.
People with heart or lung disease should pay attention to symptoms.
Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
3 to 5 miles
Increasing likelihood of respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals, aggravation of heart or lung disease (such as asthma) and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly.
People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should limit prolonged exertion and stay indoors when possible.
1 1/2 to 2 1/2 miles
Increased respiratory symptoms and aggravation of lung and heart diseases and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; possible respiratory effects to general population.
People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should avoid prolonged exertion and stay indoors when possible; everyone else should limit prolonged exertion.
1 to 1 ¼ miles
Significant aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; significant increase in respiratory effects in the general population.
People with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should avoid any outdoor activity; everyone else should avoid any outdoor exertion.
¾ mile or less
Serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.
Everyone should avoid any indoor and outdoor exertion; everyone should remain indoors whenever possible.
Sources: Guideline for Reporting of Daily Air Quality—Air Quality Index, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Oregon Department of Environmental Quality; University of Washington School of Public Health & Community Medicine
Notes on use of the table: Face away from the sun and use high contrast objects at known distances for targets when determining your visibility range. The table was developed in dry air conditions. For a given particulate level, visibility decreases substantially as the relative humidity (RH) rises above 65%. If the RH is above 65% this method of estimation should not be used.