The health danger of wildfire extends well beyond the edges of a burn, according to a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The study, which synthesized historical fire data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, among other sources, found that roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population lived in areas affected by smoke in 2011.
"Wildfire smoke can pose serious health risks to people hundreds of miles away from the sources of fires," said Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist in NRDC's Health and Environment Program. "Wildfire smoke already clouds the skies of millions of Americans, and because climate change will fuel more wildfires, that danger will rise."
The Forest Service predicts that climate change will lead to hotter, drier summers in the American South and West, lengthening and intensifying seasonal grass and forest fires. The smoke from these fires can travel for hundreds and even thousands of miles.
During the most fire-active days of 2011, areas affected by medium- and high-density smoke "were, in total, nearly 50 times greater than the areas burned directly by fire," the report notes.
Like industrial or automobile air pollution, wildfire smoke has been traced to health problems, including asthma attacks, pneumonia and respiratory issues. It can contribute to more serious complications like heart or lung disease as well, and has been linked to lower birth weights. The elderly and the very young are particularly at risk, the report says.
Smoke from the Schultz Fire makes it look like a huge bomb went off. Taken June 20, 2010 by Mike Elson. Credit: Mike Elson. Posted on Flickr by Coconino National Forest
A bad wildfire season propelled Texas to the top of the NRDC's 2011 list. Nearly all the state's population of 26 million was affected by smoke for at least a week over the course of the summer.
While the climate forces propelling the longer, more intense fire seasons will ultimately need to be addressed through a wide range of policy prescriptions, Knowlton had a few practical tips for residents of affected areas.
"Families can lessen the health risks from smoke by staying indoors or limiting outside physical activity," she said. "You can keep smoke levels low inside the house by closing the windows and running the air conditioner on 'recirculate.'"
Although smoke can travel thousands of miles on high-altitude winds, communities in close proximity to fires -- particularly those in the wildland-urban interface -- tend to be more exposed to large particulates, which can cause immediate breathing difficulty, the report notes.
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.
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