Wildfire season opens as evidence of health risks rise

Scripps Howard News Service - June is usually prime time for Cindy Coopersmith to get out and enjoy the woods and wildlife around Fort Collins, Colo.

But last June heralded a summer of smoke. For nearly a month, the High Park fire west of the city generated thick plumes as it consumed more than 87,000 acres of brush, timber and 259 homes.

It drove the Coopersmiths and tens of thousands of others indoors or away from the area.

"People with respiratory issues were in trouble. If you looked outside, you knew it was not good. It was dreadful for so many people,'' said Coopersmith, a respiratory therapist at Poudre Valley Hospital. She and her husband, Howard, both in their 50s, have asthma, and she's co-founder of a local support group for parents of children with asthma and allergies.

Researchers at Colorado State University in Fort Collins said the particulate matter at the height of the June fire exceeded some of the worst air pollution days on record for cities with some of the worst air in the world -- Los Angeles, Mexico City and Beijing.

Like millions of Americans living in or near areas increasingly prone to wildfires - and often even hundreds of miles from those areas-- their lives were disrupted even though their homes were never in direct danger.

Government agencies ranging from the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department to NASA, as well as climate scientists from the University of Alaska to the University of Maryland all agree that much of the U.S. can expect more large wildfires, generating more smoke that can affect larger areas during longer fire seasons in the years and decades ahead due to climate change.

At least a third of Americans have breathing or heart conditions that put them at risk from the soot from such fires, and even people with no health problems can be affected by the worst plumes, which can remain toxic over hundreds, even thousands of miles.

Researchers are working to better understand this toll. "The health consequences of forest fire smoke is of critical interest as fires are anticipated to occur more frequently, spread more rapidly and burn more intensely. Studies have shown health effects (from smoke) in communities far from fire sources,'' said Dr. Michelle Bell, a Yale researcher leading a two year study looking a health risks to communities from wildfires under a changing climate sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Wildfire smoke is what's left from incomplete combustion of whatever piece of landscape burns. It contains, among other things, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, irritants like formaldehyde, carcinogens like benzene, and, most of all, particulate matter -- tiny bits of ash suspended in the air.

Many experts compare burning vegetation to tobacco smoke for its harmful effects. When nearly half a million acres burned outside Moscow in August, 2010, Dr. Alexander Chuchalin, Russia's chief pulmonologist, told a news conference the impact on residents' heart and lungs "equals the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within three or four hours."

And, scientists say, the smoke from wildfires is going to reach more and more of us. Experts project that large wildfires will, in coming decades, be more common, last longer and consume more acreage as the climate gets warmer and often drier, and with more tinder and lightning to feed and spark flames. Humans start most wildfires, but lightning strikes in remote areas produce some of the biggest and hardest to contain blazes.

Wildfires will also take a greater toll on people and their homes, as more of both move into fire-prone areas.

The overall number of fires per year has averaged about 74,000 over the past decade -- basically steady -- but the number of acres burned has been rising. More than 7 million acres burned in eight of the last 12 years.

Because of the growing threat of so-called mega-fires -- blazes that burn hundreds of thousands of acres and can go on for weeks until checked by changing weather -- scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere in the past decade or so have sped up research into how fires behave, generate smoke and affect health.

While wildfire danger, both from flames as well as from smoke, is expected to increase most in the U.S. Southeast, Southwest and West, all regions face some higher risk.

"We're sure fire season is getting worse and will continue to get worse in the future. It's pretty sobering when you look at the numbers. Some of those fires are going to have smoke affect a heavily populated area,'' said Michael Brauer, associate professor of environmental hygiene at the University of British Columbia.

Respiratory damage from wildfire smoke has been documented in dozens of studies. The main culprit is fine particulate matter, less than 2.5 micrometers in size (a human hair is about 60 micrometers across). While larger particles can irritate the eyes, throat and lungs. it is the smallest that go deep into the lungs and cause inflammation.

Not only are people known to have asthma and other breathing

Scripps Howard News Service - June is usually prime time for Cindy Coopersmith to get out and enjoy the woods and wildlife around Fort Collins, Colo.

But last June heralded a summer of smoke. For nearly a month, the High Park fire west of the city generated thick plumes as it consumed more than 87,000 acres of brush, timber and 259 homes.

It drove the Coopersmiths and tens of thousands of others indoors or away from the area.

"People with respiratory issues were in trouble. If you looked outside, you knew it was not good. It was dreadful for so many people,'' said Coopersmith, a respiratory therapist at Poudre Valley Hospital. She and her husband, Howard, both in their 50s, have asthma, and she's co-founder of a local support group for parents of children with asthma and allergies.

Researchers at Colorado State University in Fort Collins said the particulate matter at the height of the June fire exceeded some of the worst air pollution days on record for cities with some of the worst air in the world -- Los Angeles, Mexico City and Beijing.

Like millions of Americans living in or near areas increasingly prone to wildfires - and often even hundreds of miles from those areas-- their lives were disrupted even though their homes were never in direct danger.

Government agencies ranging from the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department to NASA, as well as climate scientists from the University of Alaska to the University of Maryland all agree that much of the U.S. can expect more large wildfires, generating more smoke that can affect larger areas during longer fire seasons in the years and decades ahead due to climate change.

At least a third of Americans have breathing or heart conditions that put them at risk from the soot from such fires, and even people with no health problems can be affected by the worst plumes, which can remain toxic over hundreds, even thousands of miles.

Researchers are working to better understand this toll. "The health consequences of forest fire smoke is of critical interest as fires are anticipated to occur more frequently, spread more rapidly and burn more intensely. Studies have shown health effects (from smoke) in communities far from fire sources,'' said Dr. Michelle Bell, a Yale researcher leading a two year study looking a health risks to communities from wildfires under a changing climate sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Wildfire smoke is what's left from incomplete combustion of whatever piece of landscape burns. It contains, among other things, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, irritants like formaldehyde, carcinogens like benzene, and, most of all, particulate matter -- tiny bits of ash suspended in the air.

Many experts compare burning vegetation to tobacco smoke for its harmful effects. When nearly half a million acres burned outside Moscow in August, 2010, Dr. Alexander Chuchalin, Russia's chief pulmonologist, told a news conference the impact on residents' heart and lungs "equals the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within three or four hours."

And, scientists say, the smoke from wildfires is going to reach more and more of us. Experts project that large wildfires will, in coming decades, be more common, last longer and consume more acreage as the climate gets warmer and often drier, and with more tinder and lightning to feed and spark flames. Humans start most wildfires, but lightning strikes in remote areas produce some of the biggest and hardest to contain blazes.

Wildfires will also take a greater toll on people and their homes, as more of both move into fire-prone areas.

The overall number of fires per year has averaged about 74,000 over the past decade -- basically steady -- but the number of acres burned has been rising. More than 7 million acres burned in eight of the last 12 years.

Because of the growing threat of so-called mega-fires -- blazes that burn hundreds of thousands of acres and can go on for weeks until checked by changing weather -- scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere in the past decade or so have sped up research into how fires behave, generate smoke and affect health.

While wildfire danger, both from flames as well as from smoke, is expected to increase most in the U.S. Southeast, Southwest and West, all regions face some higher risk.

"We're sure fire season is getting worse and will continue to get worse in the future. It's pretty sobering when you look at the numbers. Some of those fires are going to have smoke affect a heavily populated area,'' said Michael Brauer, associate professor of environmental hygiene at the University of British Columbia.

Respiratory damage from wildfire smoke has been documented in dozens of studies. The main culprit is fine particulate matter, less than 2.5 micrometers in size (a human hair is about 60 micrometers across). While larger particles can irritate the eyes, throat and lungs. it is the smallest that go deep into the lungs and cause inflammation.

Not only are people known to have asthma and other breathing

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