As wildfires spread, smoke season in Idaho has become a public health hazard

As wildfires spread, smoke season in Idaho has become a public health hazard

Ethan Sims and Wesley Bidcock know what to expect when fire season arrives. As doctors who specialize in helping people breathe, they see what happens when wildfire smoke spreads to communities across Idaho.

Every time there’s a rise in the air quality index — a classification of hazardous air — there is a rise in hospital visits, they said.

“When we start to get bad smoke — like three or four weeks — there’s usually a delay in the time the smoke really starts to get into the environment,” Pidcock said in an interview on Wednesday. “And three to five days later, when you start getting a lot of phone calls like, ‘Hey, I can’t breathe. “

As a pulmonologist at Saint Alphonsus Health System, Pidcock sees these patients in the hospital and sometimes in the intensive care unit — with underlying health conditions that were under control until smoke transmission.

“You might think it’s just respiratory illness, but it’s not,” said Sims, an emergency physician with St. Luke’s Health System. “It really is for all comers.”

Older adults, children, and people with asthma and COPD suffer the most when bushfire smoke is in the air.

Sims and Bidcock said these are just the people with immediate health problems. Studies of wildland firefighters, tobacco smokers, and blood samples of people exposed to wildfire smoke have indicated that chronic or long-term exposure to smoke is unhealthy for everyone.

As doctors in one of the nation’s bushfire capitals, they worry about what it means for public health when the air turns to mist and the smell of campfires.

What happens to your body when you inhale bushfire smoke?

Scientists and health care providers have known for decades that air pollution is harmful to the human body. And in recent years, more research has focused on the effects of wildfire smoke.

“While recent studies have shown improved air quality in the neighboring United States through reduced industrial and vehicle emissions…air pollution has increased in areas prone to wildfires, particularly in the Western Mountain region of the United States, and is expected to worsen because of this,” the scientists wrote in year 2020 Study led by researchers at the University of Montana.

The study, which was based on a decade of data, found that flu season hit people the most after a particularly bad wildfire season — even though the flu came after months of exposure to smoke.

Hospitals and clinics receive patients who come in as soon as the smoke rises – with difficulty breathing because those tiny particles in the air are inhaled. But smoke has a lasting effect, too.

“So there’s kind of an immediate effect, but also kind of a delayed effect, because your lungs take a long time to recover from exposure” to the smoke, Sims said. “Think of it as if you smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for two weeks, your lungs wouldn’t go back to normal the day you stopped smoking the last cigarette. And if you smoked two packs of cigarettes for 10 years, even just one month a year, and for 10 years, then This effect is additive.”

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Sims and Pidcock said they advise their patients — and anyone who can — to watch air quality reports and to stay indoors when air quality is unhealthy. ask patients to close windows, turn on air filters if they are available, keep their air conditioners or fans with clean filters, and contact their primary care provider immediately if smoke makes them feel unwell; Often, they said, patients wait until they struggle to breathe.

But as they have noted, not everyone has the means to set up a high-quality HEPA filter to clean the air in their homes, workplaces, and schools.

Wildfire activity increased in Idaho during the hot, dry summer

States like California and Oregon have seen untold human devastation from wildfires in recent years – people injured and killed, homes burned and entire cities displaced.

But when it comes to wildfire activity, Idaho has become the capital of the continental United States whose acres have burned.

Fire season now regularly brings unhealthy weather conditions to Idaho and its neighbors downwind of fires.

Wet spring in Idaho delayed the start of the fire season, but fire danger and activity increased during the hot, dry summer.

So far this year, 347,871 acres have been burned in Idaho, Idaho Land Administration Director Dustin Miller told the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners Tuesday morning at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.

This number includes federal, state, and private lands.

“August was definitely warmer than average, and the fires increased in size and frequency throughout the month,” Miller said.

One problem now, Miller said, is that many seasonal firefighters are back in school. Firefighters are sometimes college students who fight wildland fires as a summer job.

On state land managed by the Idaho Land Department, he said, the state has turned to some non-fire employees to help out with firefighting efforts when they can.

“Resources have been underutilized, but we are now feeling some relief with lower temperatures and some scattered rain,” Miller said. “There is still a significant fire risk in many parts of the state, but shorter days and improved conditions are aiding our firefighting efforts.”

The largest fire in Idaho this year is the Moose Fire, which is located in the Salmon-Challis National Forest just outside of Stanley and has burned more than 130,000 acres since July 17. Incident Information System Report. As of Tuesday, fire officials reported that 51% of the moose fire perimeter was contained. However, they did not expect the fire to be completely contained until October 31.

On Tuesday, Boise-based The National Interagency Fire Center reported There are 38 major wildfires burning in Idaho, the largest number in the country. Officials from the firehouse reported that there are also 27 major wildfires burning in Montana, 13 major fires in Washington and six major wildfires each in California and Oregon.

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