The California wildfire season is off to a horrendous start, with tens of thousands of acres ablaze amidst dry, hot winds known as the Santa Anas. Typically seen in the Fall, these winds are not only a perfect set-up for brush fires to start, they make it close to impossible to contain the fires from spreading, let alone extinguish. In the past 24 hours, thousands of residents have been evacuated from their homes, and many have tragically lost their homes to these devastating fires. As with the past several seasons, with fires decimating parts of Malibu, most of Paradise, and parts of the Yosemite and San Fernando Valleys, Californians are braced for another fire-filled year.
Not only is there the emotional toll and toll on one’s property and possessions caused by these disasters, the toll on our health can be substantial. Most of us who live within 30 or so miles of active fires have the now familiar low-grade burning in our throats, dry eyes, and even a bit of a headache. The orange glows of sunrise and sunset are right out of scene from a dystopian movie. Weather apps on phones show “smoky” as opposed to cloudy, sunny, foggy, or rain.
The toll on the lungs is a more invisible one, yet more significant than dry eyes or a scratchy throat. Those with chronic lung diseases, such as asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or chronic bronchitis are at high risk for further lung damage from fire exposure. Older adults are also at risk, and young children and infants, whose airways are immature, and who breathe more air per pound of body weight, may be the highest risk group of all.
Even if the air looks clear, as bright, cloudless blue skies tend to be the norm in areas surrounding fires, especially if the wind is in a different direction, the air quality is likely pretty terrible. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends the site Airnow.gov, which provides Air Quality Indices for all regions in the U.S. Most people living near fires are surprised to find that their air quality is pretty poor, even if the fires are many miles away. Protective masks, called Respirator Masks, can filter out most particulate matter breathed in fire-filled air. These must be specific masks that can filter the appropriate amount of particles. Ideal masks are known as N95 or P100 masks, filtering out 95-100% of particles. These may be helpful especially to those with lung issues.
As many of the folks who suffer from mild to severe lung diseases are not directly in the line of these fires, smoke inhalation damage, even if simply from poor air quality due to fire, can be more insidious. The particulate matter, including pollutants, soot, ash, material from trees, buildings, and smoke retardant chemicals, gets inhaled, and causes both acute and chronic inflammation in the large and small airways of the upper and lower respiratory tract. Asthmatics tend to have more asthma exacerbations both during and after fires, as the air quality looms poor long after the fires are controlled. Older adults with chronic lung diseases tend to be at higher risk for developing worsening breathing problems, and infants and young children are at high risk for illnesses such as croup, bronchitis, and pneumonia.
This is the time of year that extra medical supplies, such as inhalers, nebulizer machines, air filters, and any prescription medications need to be kept on hand, with an extra supply available in the event of rapid home evacuation. And for those who are in the wake of any natural disaster, be it fire, hurricane, tornado, blizzard, or flood, heed the call of the first responders. If they say “Go,” go. Not only does trying to tough it out at home put you and your family at risk, it puts the fire fighters and other first responders at risk and prevents them from doing their jobs. And when you leave, bring your medications. Many Californians, continually “on-call” for earthquakes, are familiar with stocking emergency supplies in front hall closets, garages, and car trunks. Each year, more and more fire evacuation supplies are being stocked alongside the earthquake kits. Fire seasons are getting worse each year. Nine out of ten of California’s worst fires in history have occurred in the last 16 years. Some may call that coincidence. Most would call it Climate Change.