Wildfire Emissions

Flames from the 2015 Valley Fire cover a hillside (Photo credit: REUTERS/Noah Berger)

Holy Smokes! The Story of a Firefighter

Gilmer County Fire Department Chief Tony Pritchett has the specific details of a minor smoke inhalation episode nailed down. The condition is first initiated by a deep-set exhaustion: he’s already usually hot, sweaty, and tired out from the firefighting work. Overwhelmed, his respiratory system begins to let down its defenses. Then he starts to get a tightness in his chest, like his upper body is being squeezed by an invisible fist. It becomes hard for him to fully catch his breath, and he can feel a distinct obstruction in his windpipe with every attempt to suck air into his lungs. At the same time, his energy levels plummet dangerously.

Even so, Chief Pritchett, who also serves as Director of the Gilmer County Emergency Management Agency in Ellijay, GA, isn’t fazed. After working in the fire department for 15 years, this kind of event has become a routine problem for him. Of course, with more severe issues, he still admits to getting a bit scared and panicky upon realizing and dealing with the extent of the damage. But at this point, Pritchett has experienced almost everything that a fire can throw at him, although thankfully severe respiratory problems are nowhere near as common as minor breathing issues. When first asked about the regularity of such events, Pritchett couldn’t even begin to count how many times he’d experienced any kind of medical complication from smoke inhalation. Finally, he suggested he’s had somewhere between 30 and 40 separate occasions where he’s suffered an episode severe enough to warrant some kind of medical breathing treatment. 

Smoke Signals

Pritchett isn’t alone among firefighters when it comes to respiratory damage from smoke inhalation. Even so, it’s not the most intuitive health risk that people think of firefighters having to face when they’re in the field. Most people imagine the danger to human health comes from the actual flames, says Pritchett, whether it’s from severe burns, weakened and collapsing structures, or the heat coupled with exertion. And while all these are valid concerns, in reality, firefighters worry a lot more about the smoke than you might think. In fact, the number one cause of death related to fires is smoke inhalation. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of fire deaths are the result of smoke inhalation injuries. Given the nature of their jobs, it comes as no surprise that firefighters are especially at risk.

“We have had individuals go to seek medical treatment because of extended exposure to smoke,” said Pritchett. “Most of the time, those are individuals who have been out there for a duration or have been in more extreme fire conditions directly.” He continued, “Just off the top of my head, I would say maybe five out of every ten fires that we go to, we may experience issues related to smoke inhalation.”

That being said, a firefighter suffering from minor smoke inhalation on the job doesn’t necessarily need to be transported to a hospital or medical facility to be treated for it. Most of the time, if the exposure was brief enough, a couple of puffs from an albuterol inhaler or some albuterol pills will do the trick. Albuterol is a bronchodilator, which means that it’s a medication that relaxes medium and large muscles in the airways, allowing for increased air flow to the lungs. According to Pritchett, a dose of albuterol is the most common and traditional treatment for firefighters with smoke inhalation issues. And it’s not solely for firefighters; the medication is so helpful for a variety of respiratory conditions that it’s common practice to have it on hand in ambulances in case Pritchett’s team has to dispense breathing treatments for civilians.

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A wall of fire and smoke (Photo credit: Erick Pleitez/CC BY 2.0)

But unfortunately, smoke inhalation-related medical issues don’t always have an easy, on-scene fix. There’s a popular misconception that only the firefighters who responded to the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 risk developing cancer, because of their exposure to jet fuel and asbestos. In reality, due to the amount of carcinogens that they are exposed to on a daily basis, cancer threatens firefighters everywhere. Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) surveyed 30,000 firefighters in 2013 and found that on average, they had higher rates of several types of cancers as well as all cancers combined. When it comes to lung cancer specifically, which Pritchett identifies as one of the leading causes of job-related injury to firefighters, the study also found that the risk of a firefighter contracting the disease increases with every fire they fight. And because firefighters tend to spend more years on the job on average, compared to other first responders like paramedics and police officers, this health risk especially hits home for them.

“There are a ton of health risks firefighters face,” said Pritchett. “Respiratory conditions are up there, but they all kind of go hand in hand.”

Money to Burn

It’s some consolation that these health threats are common and severe enough that the world is finally beginning to take notice of them. Specifically, policymakers are starting to make it a higher priority to provide financial resources to firefighters who may have contracted cancer on the job, in addition to the benefit they receive from their standard worker’s compensation. Just last week, in Georgia, state lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to pass a bill that gives firefighters a special insurance plan with a payout of $25,000 and three years of salary to help with healthcare costs. To put that into comparison, currently, firefighters who get sick risk losing their jobs and existing health insurance. If House Bill 146 is written into law with Governor Nathan Deal’s approval, Georgia will join 39 other states in financially supporting the medical risks and burdens that their firefighters take on willingly to protect local communities. 

Despite the importance of this kind of monetary assistance, policies like House Bill 146 focus on addressing the aftereffects, once firefighters have already contracted these medical conditions. According to Pritchett, one area that fire departments could really use some financial help in to tackle this issue at its root is in purchasing forms of respiratory protection specific to when firefighters are battling wildfires. When firefighters face a house fire, they come armed with self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA). These distinctive, bulky devices provide rescue workers, firefighters, and other emergency first responders with breathable air isolated from outdoor contaminants. (If that acronym looks somewhat familiar to you, it might be because SCUBA machines are a type of SCBA—the extra “U” stands for “underwater.”) The full set, which includes a high-pressure air tank, a pressure regulator, and an inhalation connection mounted to a carrying frame, is a nearly 25 pound burden that firefighters often literally can’t afford to carry in wildfire conditions, especially considering that the total weight of a firefighter’s gear can add up to 75 pounds. Unsurprisingly, researchers from Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan found that heavier equipment temporarily prevents firefighters from reaching their full physical potential and has a negative affect on their effectiveness in fighting fires. 

“With wildfire, typically there’s a lot of walking that has to happen and a lot of strenuous activity getting to remote areas,” Pritchett said. “It’s just not possible or feasible to carry those air packs or those self-contained breathing apparatus into the wilderness or remote areas and sustain that air supply.”

Without the SCBA at their disposal in wildfire settings, however, firefighters are essentially left without respiratory protection of any kind at the forest front. There do exist lightweight respirators and face masks on the market that are designed for firefighters to use when combatting forest fires, and work by filtering out dangerous contaminants and wildfire emissions. For example, Forestry Supplies sells a basic “anti-pollution mask” with a dynamic activated charcoal filter that absorbs atmospheric irritants before they can reach your lungs, while Hot Shield offers a more comprehensive “wildland face protector mask” made from non-flammable fabric and includes a replaceable particulate matter filter. But while these kinds of options are less of a burden on the firefighter’s body, they hit a pinched fire department’s budget where it hurts. The Forestry Supplies mask is about $40, with $20 filter replacements; the Hot Shield mask is $100, with $45 filter replacements.

“Masks are an option, but more so than anything it’s a funding hurdle, because that kind of equipment is expensive, and to replace the cartridges and keep everybody properly sized and keep that stuff issued.” Pritchett explained. “It’s not feasible for a lot of departments.”

Great Outdoors

The silver lining for firefighters having to fight wildfires with little respiratory protection is that inhaling wildfire smoke is widely considered to be less dangerous than smoke from a house fire or other domestic structural fire, which basically refers to any kind of manmade settlement. The difference is in the materials that are getting burnt: between natural vegetation and the synthetic products found in every home. Researchers believe that this distinct contrast is responsible for not only the existing heightened cancer risk in firefighters, but the reason why these health risks have been rising steadily since 1980. A century ago, houses were furnished with materials with materials whose origins people actually recognized: wood, cloth, metal, and glass. But today, they’ve been replaced by plastics, foams, and coatings, which emit a toxic mixture of carcinogens that lace inside the smoke and soot inside burning buildings, making fires more poisonous and a firefighter’s job even more dangerous than it already is. Look around. Your couch, your printer, your son’s soccer ball, your measuring cups: all of them can be toxic when they’re lit on fire and inhaled.

“Although the smoke still is an irritant in wildland fire, it’s burning natural materials, so you’re not really getting so much of those noxious fumes off of manmade materials is the difference,” said Pritchett. “And, with wildland fires, for the most part, there’s a lot more oxygenated air in and around the smoke that you can get to a lot of times to be able to breathe more safely. You’re in the open air.”

Time-lapse of smoke rising from Rough Fire of the 2015 California wildfire season (Video credit: Pat Hawks/CC BY 4.0)

Just because wildfire smoke happens to be the lesser of two evils in this case, however, doesn’t mean it’s entirely safe. In fact, emissions from wildfires come with their own set of dangers. We go into this in further depth later, but to make a long story short, the devil is in the details: the microscopic particulate matter (PM), a catch-all term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. The smaller the PM, the easier it is to infiltrate deep into the respiratory system without detection. Once there, the metals on PM’s surface will initiate the production of free radicals, whose unpaired electrons (and consequent electron-stealing habit) wreaks havoc through cells, protein, and even DNA. Through a separate strategy, PM also finds a way to get itself ingested by white blood cells, which then initiate cell death in mass numbers to protect the body. Ultimately, these double whammy effects of PM from wildfire emissions lead to a host of respiratory health problems, without the added toxins from synthetic products: from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, to cardiopulmonary issuesasthmapneumoniainfluenzaacute respiratory tract infectioncardiovascular diseaselow birth weightlung cancer, and early death.

Future of Fire

Even if the Gilmer County Fire Department’s budget swelled significantly overnight, Pritchett isn’t convinced that money alone could help minimize health risks to firefighters as well as local citizens. While he certainly wouldn’t complain, the fire chief believes that there are larger social patterns that need to be addressed to limit prevent wildfires from getting more frequent and severe than they already are. First, he cites the expansion of the wildland-urban interface (WUI), or areas where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire thanks to urban development and sprawl. According to Pritchett, this tendency basically “makes the homes fuel during a wildland fire” and also provides more opportunities for wildfires to start up in the first place due to human activities like cleaning fireplaces or having an electrical malfunction. He also believes that interface could also have larger economic effects.

“I think [wildfires] will become more frequent because of the wildland-urban interface. And even more so than frequency is the amount of damage and the extent of the fires,” Pritchett said. “Because of the interface, it’s not just going to be the woods burning or the mountain burning, it’s going to be the woods and the mountain and the 15 houses that are on that mountain being consumed by that fire. So, your dollar loss is going to go up significantly because you’re going to lose structures and personal property on top of the wildland aspect as well.”

Not to mention, contemporary policymaking and mentality on wildfires isn’t helping either. 

“A lot of people look at fire as a totally bad thing, but fire is part of the overall ecology. Nature and the forests need fire,” Pritchett said. “For example, my grandparents that lived there—even my great-great grandparents that lived here back in the early 1900s and 1800s—it wasn’t uncommon then for those folks to go around and set the woods on fire. It’s the same mentality of what controlled burning is today. What it does is it eliminates the fuel of the leaf litter on the ground and dead vegetation; it consumes all that stuff and gets it down to the mineral soil and it provides and promotes a more healthy growth atmosphere.”

That being said, there’s certainly a time and a place for controlled burning. Chief Pritchett has certainly had his fill of fire from the last several months. It’s Friday, and he’s enjoying every minute of it. The fires in northern Georgia were finally put down to rest thanks to the delayed rainstorms, and Pritchett is taking the whole weekend off to relax. On my way out, though, I notice the large sign outside the Gilmer County Fire Department displaying today’s fire danger. The arrow is pointed to the bright red, rightmost slice of the chart that reads the highest warning it’s capable of: “Extreme.” As fire season begins to pick up in Atlanta’s dry heat next month, I hope Pritchett is taking it easy while he still can.

In Climate Change's Line of Fire Too Hot to Handle?

One moment, you might be enjoying a peaceful morning, surrounded by songbird and sunlight. Then, the trees begin to blush orange. Sunlight filters weakly through the rising smoke, embers glowing like small eyes in the underbrush. A wave of earthworms, slugs, mites and other invertebrates crawl through the dry soil, trying to stay ahead of the heat. As the winds pick up, the fire starts to come alive in earnest, licking up the sides of trees and leaping from branch to branch. The next thing you know, it can be dancing through the forest sounding like a freight train, lighting the canopies of 150 foot trees in crowns of flame. A powerful fire can engulf millions of acres of forest at a time, leaving a thin coat of white ash—like snow—in its wake.

Even if you’ve been lucky enough to have never met a wildfire in person, you’re probably familiar with the concept. Maybe you grew up with Smokey the Bear, who for some reason insisted that only you could stop forest fires. Or you’ve seen portrayals of wildfires in movies—from watching Spirit in Dreamwork’s Stallion of the Cimarron galloping from a fiery train explosion in the woods, to witnessing “the red flower” snap at your favorite characters’ heels in Disney’s Jungle Book. Or maybe you just recently claimed that a viral meme “spread like wildfire” around the Internet—or, if you’re being honest, just your immediate social circle.

But Smokey the Bear, animated movies, and expressions never really get to the science behind wildfires—how exactly do they start, and how do they spread? Are they always bad? What do animals do during a wildfire, and what kind of health effects do they have on people? Not to mention, does climate change change (pun intended) any of that? (Hint: yes, it does!)

This, my friends, is where we come in.

What’s in a Wildfire?

The birth of a wildfire can start with a bang or a fizzle: a bolt of lightning, an arsonist torch, a stray power line, or even a nearby volcano. But even if it begins with a discarded cigarette on the forest floor, things can heat up very quickly. Once wood is heated to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit, it begins to emit biogenic volatile organic gasses, or BVOCs for short. For reference, the temperature of the tip of a lit cigarette when smoldering is nearly 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, so it really doesn’t take that much relative heat to induce this stress response in wood. (But before you start thinking of wood as weak, consider that your pansy skin could start to burn at a mere 109 degrees Fahrenheit—just to put that into perspective for you.)

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Cigarette (Photo credit: Fried Dough/CC BY 2.0)

In any case, BVOCs—including our ozone precursor friend, isoprene—were designed to protect against large fluctuations in leaf temperatures and destabilized cell membranes. Unfortunately, in an ironic twist of fate, BVOCs are also pretty flammable. In fact, BVOCs are technically non-methane hydrocarbons—the very same compounds that make up gasoline. Like gasoline—you know, that compound with enough power to run our thousand-pound vehicles—BVOCs have a lot of energy. So does another group of compounds commonly found in forests where wildfires begin: oxygen. But because both BVOCs and oxygen molecules want to be in a reduced energy state, they form a partnership and decide to rearrange themselves into carbon dioxide and water, two relatively low-energy compounds. But that energy can’t just disappear; the newly formed molecules have to deal with it in some way. Here, they use two strategies: 1) they take off after the reaction with extremely high speed and rotation, which we feel in the form of heat, and 2) as they spin off, they emit visible and infrared light. Together, this heat and light form a force that is both familiar and frightening: fire.

Just because the stars align to create one drop of fire in a forest, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that conditions are prepped for a full-blown wildfire. Every fire requires three ingredients to keep burning: heat, oxygen, and fuel. Together, these components make up the fire triangle, a simple model for understanding how any fire works. In general, a wildfire will spread in the direction that has the most abundant resources for each of these three elements. Of course, in the real world fire is anything but simple, partly because these unpredictable forces of nature have their own means of securing at least some of their own necessities (a pretty frightening concept, if you ask us).

For one, as soon as hydrocarbons and oxygen combust, the heat that the newly-formed flame generates induces more BVOC to be emitted from nearby wood, which then combusts to generate more heat and more gasses: a built-in positive feedback loop that allows for fire to spread very easily under the right conditions, consuming larger and larger vegetation. Not to mention, a wildfire can also replenish its own source of new oxygenknown more commonly as wind. As a fire heats up the air around it, the hot air rises quickly, allowing fresh, oxygen-filled air to fill the vacuum left behind. As a bonus, this influx of air can pick up ashes from the ground, which has the potential to be reignited. On a large enough scale, this self-sustaining whirlwind of air can produce a teetering, spinning vortex of flame that goes by a variety of names, each as terrifying as the last—fire whirls, fire devils, fire tornados, fire twisters, or (our personal favorite) firenados.

"Where the Wildfires Are"—an explainer video by Emily Sun Li on the basics of wildfire spread

Clearly, wildfires have a pretty destructive reputation, but they also have a soft side that people don’t usually mention. In the wild, fires provide really important natural services to a bunch of environments that have come to depend on fire for renewal, maintenance, and balance. For example, in many grasslands, like the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in southeastern Montana, fires prevent larger trees, woody plants, and invasive species from crowding out native herbs and grasses. Without them, these rolling plains of windswept grasses would be quickly replaced by forests, much to the chagrin of the many animal species that call these grasslands home.

In forest ecosystems that evolved with fire, many plant species have adapted to and even come to rely on fire. Jack pine trees of the Great Lake state forests, for instance, will only release its seeds in the presence of intense heat. This adaptation to fire gives Jack pine seedlings a great shot at life, as they can take advantage of the ash-enriched soil and reduced competition. In general, fires often stimulate the flowering and fruiting of many plants, since wood ash is such a great fertilizer—it contains all the nutrients that plants need to grow, including calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Not to mention, because of these elements (particularly calcium), wood ash also acts as a liming agent: a calcium- and magnesium- rich soil additive that neutralizes soil acidity and increases activity of soil bacteria. From the forests of British Columbia, to California shrublands, to South Africa’s savannas, to the the longleaf pine forests of the Southeastern U.S. and even wetlands(?), ecosystems around the world play with fire—and instead of getting burnt, they flourish.

But before you start going around your neighborhood committing arson in the name of nature’s best interests, consider finishing this section of the site. From the unfortunate human health impacts of wildfire emissions, to how climate change is meddling in the size and severity of wildfires (and why wildfires are becoming increasingly less “wild”), to exploring what this force of nature is up to in the Southeastern U.S. near Atlanta, GA, the role of wildfires today is anything but black and white. And the future, of course, is an even more ambiguous shade of grey.

Devil in the Details

You might be thinking that you have a pretty solid understanding of how wildfires can affect human health in general. After all, you’re probably human, and so you’ve likely had some experience with fire (you know, like your ancestors have for literally millions of years). And the public health burdens that you immediately think of wildfires having on the healthcare system and public health infrastructure are absolutely valid: large-scale evacuations, temporary shelters, and treatment of individuals for burn injuries, for instance. Other negative effects, like mental health impacts and soil erosion, which can lead to potential contamination of water reservoirs and drinking supplies, and possibly increased flooding, don’t come to mind at first but seem relatively intuitive. Air quality might fall into that last category, since the dark, billowing grey smoke above the treetops doesn’t look particularly designed to be inhaled.

But if air quality is an afterthought, you might want to reconsider your priorities a bit. But, to be completely honest, we’re not surprised if it were. Wildfires are such a dramatic force of nature, and they leave some very distinct trails of damage in their path: blackened trees, fleeing animals, burnt homes. But when it comes to arguably the most severe health effect from wildfires, these roaring natural disasters are much more subtle. The real danger, more specifically, comes from inhaling particulate matter (PM): a catch-all term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. Some of these particles, like dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are big or dark enough for you to see with just your naked eye. Others are so tiny that they’re pretty much invisible, and can only really be detected with an electron microscope.

These tiny pollutants might not sound so bad to you, but your respiratory system begs to differ. In fact, when it comes to PM, the bigger, the better. Ideally, of course, PM is large enough that your upper respiratory tract will try its best to eject it from entering into your body at all. For example, you might choke and cough out a stray ember (hey, nobody said the ejection process was graceful). It’s when particles get small enough to inhale that the trouble starts. PM10 are one such category of inhalable particles, which are 10 micrometers and smaller in diameter. PM2.5, as you might be able to guess, refer to particulate matter with diameters that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller. To put that into perspective, the average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter, or 30 times thicker than the largest fine particle. PM2.5 are referred to as “fine” inhalable particles, but just so we’re clear, that adjective is only accurate when it comes to describing their size, not their positive qualities. Because really, once they get inside your body, it’s far from fine.

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Astronaut views of wildfires in Colorado, 2013 (Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CC BY 2.0)

PM, particularly PM2.5, has two major methods of attack once it’s gotten inside you. (You’ve already helped it get there by breathing it deep inside your lungs, and basically giving it a golden ticket into your bloodstream. Great job.) First,PM2.5 can wreak havoc on your body through free radical peroxidation. Since that only seems to be a loose interpretation of English—I mean, you probably recognize the first two words but also realize we’re likely not talking about a liberating social movement—we’re going to break that down for you. Free radicals simply refer to any kind of atom, molecule, or ion—so think of a tiny, chemical building block—with an unpaired electron in its outer orbit, otherwise known as a valence electron. Electrons, you see, don’t like to be alone; they liked to be paired with other electrons. They’re hopeless romantics. So basically, an unpaired electron is an unhappy, reactive electron that is vigilantly on the look-out for an opportunity to find some love.

In this case, free radicals begin to proliferate in the lungs due to PM2.5 exposure, mostly thanks to the fact that the PM2.5 surface is rich in iron, copper, zinc, manganese, and other metals. Usually, like you’d probably expect, these metals are fairly well-regulated inside your body. For example, trasferrin proteins bind to iron and help you to control the amount of iron inside your bloodstream. That’s good, because when metals aren’t bound inside the body, they’ll start to initiate free radical production through a really inconvenient process called the Fenton reaction. Of course, this isn’t good news for your body. Unless you’re Wolverine, and that doesn’t count because he could control the metal in his system anyway.

And here’s where we get to that scary word we mentioned above: peroxidation. Basically, that’s a really scientific way of saying that free radicals, once turned loose in your body, will start to initiate a specific chain of events that ultimately cause a whole bunch of problems for your cells. Because free radicals are, by definition, single and ready to mingle, they jump at the chance to buddy up with another electron—even if this electron is already taken. It’s not unusual for free radicals to “steal” an electron from one of the membrane lipids that form the surface of all your cells. Because of this greedy, home-wrecking free radical, now that membrane lipid becomes a free radical itself, desperate to find a partner for its unpaired electron. It starts to flirt with its neighboring lipid’s electrons, steals one, and ultimately starts a domino effect of cellular damage. And this doesn’t just happen at the cell membrane level. Free radicals can also do their destruction inside the cell, to proteins and DNA, which can lead to cancer. Basically, everybody loses, including you. Everybody, that is, except that free radical in the beginning, which got the electron it wanted in the end.

But in case that wasn’t enough damage for you, there’s a second strategy particulate matter likes to use that turns the body against itself through inflammation. PM plays a mean waiting game, though. First, it flirts with scavenger receptors, which are partnered with alveolar macrophages. (Translation, working backwards: macrophages are a type of white blood cell that get rid of anything the body is suspicious of—cellular debris, foreign substances, microbes, cancer cells, and the like—through a process called phagocytosis, which is a fancy way of saying “swallowing the thing whole.” Think Kirby from Super Smash Bros. Alveolar macrophages specifically refer to the macrophages that live in any of the small air spaces in the lungs where carbon dioxide leaves the blood and oxygen enters. As you can imagine, traffic here is pretty high, considering the alveoli are one of the major boundaries between the body and the outside world. And finally, scavenger receptors help their phagocyte identify molecular patterns in the name of deciding what material to digest. So basically, if you’ll eat anything, you wouldn’t make a good macrophage without the help of a picky scavenger receptor.)

Under normal circumstances, scavenger receptors help the phagocyte they’re associated with be selective of the material that is phagocytized, so as to not compromise the normal cells and structures of the body. But when under the spell of PM, scavenger receptors give the green light for the macrophage to ingest the particles, even though unfolding events quickly reveal it’s not in the best interests of the body’s overall health. Upon ingesting the PM, the phagocyte immediately commits suicide to protect the body, which is more scientifically known as “programmed cell death” or apoptosis, from a Greek word meaning “falling off,” as in leaves from a tree. Obviously, massive die-offs of the body’s first line of defense isn’t exactly a sign that things are going well. So, in response to widespread alveolar macrophage apoptosis, blood-traffic-control proteins called cytokines signal a variety of immune cells, from more macrophages to other types of white blood cells, to travel to the site of infection. Once there, the cytokines activate the cells, and stimulate them to produce more cytokines.

There isn’t anything wrong with this in and of itself. Normally, the body is able to keep this feedback loop in check. However, in some circumstances, like when PM is involved, the reaction spirals out of control and way too many immune cells are activated in a single place: another name for inflammation. In small doses, of course, this rush of blood—rich in white blood cells, the body’s first line of soldiers—is an important and lifesaving instinct. You might notice this response as a warm outline encircling a skin wound, a deep pink color from the influx of red blood cells. Unfortunately, however, sometimes (like in this case) this impulse ends up backfiring on the body. This particular positive feedback loop is called a cytokine storm, and it’s basically inflammation on steroids. PM might have taken a while to get to this point, but that’s why people talk about the calm before a storm.

Together, the double whammy health effects of particulate matter from wildfire emissions that penetrate deeply into the lungs—specifically, free radical peroxidation and inflammation—irritate and corrode the alveolar wall, and can ultimately lead or at least make you more susceptible to a really depressingly long laundry list of respiratory health problems. In fact, during times of peak fire PM concentrations, the chances that a person will seek emergency care increases by 50 percent when compared to non-fire conditions. We’ll go through as many resulting health conditions as we can, as quickly as we can: lung cancerchronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (causes airflow blockage and breathing problems), general cardiopulmonary issues (which generally refers to the heart and lungs), asthma development and exacerbation, pneumoniainfluenzaacute respiratory tract infectioncardiovascular diseaselow birth weight, and, of course, early death.

And now that we have all that good stuff out of the way, let’s learn about how climate change is going to make everything even worse! (In case you can’t tell, we’re making a joke. If you get sad, feel free to take a break and skip ahead to the solutions section. There are solutions people are working on, we promise!)

Why Climate Change and Wildfire are BFFLS

If the public health effects of wildfires came easily to you, you probably at least have a couple of guesses when it comes to the effects of climate change on the size and severity of wildfires, present and projected. As we reviewed earlier, wildfires need three things to survive and flourish, according to the fire triangle diagram: heat, oxygen, and fuel. And climate change, as you might have already figured out, is happy to deliver on both heat and fuel (oxygen is a bit out of its pay grade). In return, wildfires add an estimated 3.5 x 1015 grams of carbon to atmospheric emissions each year, or roughly a whopping 40 percent of fossil fuel carbon emissions, making this partnership good for both of them but bad for us—as most of climate change’s deals tend to be.

First of all, climate change helps lengthen fire season, or the period of time when fires are actually burning, giving wildfires a larger window of time and opportunity. More specifically, one study found that the length of the active wildfire season in the Western United States has increased by 78 days (64 percent), and that the average burn duration of large fires has increased from 7.5 to 37.1 days, when comparing 1970 to 1986 with 1987 to 2003. One of the main reasons for this is that the fire season is starting much earlier, giving wildfires a head start. In parts of the country with substantial snowmelt, winter-spring runoff is happening at least five days earlier than it did in the mid-20th century, with the largest changes occurring in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast. Other scientists see the changes as more severe, reporting that mountain snowpacks are melting 1- to 4- weeks earlier than usual, with snow-dominated forests at elevations of about 2100 meters showing the greatest historical difference. Either way, all trends are looking pessimistic when it comes to the longevity of snowmelt in a changed climate. But this snowmelt is important; the moisture from snowpacks keeps wildfires at bay in colder months. Once the snowmelt is complete, these forests become easily combustible within a month. Summer heat builds up more quickly, and warm conditions extend further into the fall, ensuring wildfires can stick around for longer. In fact, in the 34 years studied, years with earlier snowmelt had five times as many wildfires as years with late snowmelt.

Not only will the fire season be longer, but it will also be much drier, which is to every wildfire’s liking. As you probably know by now, climate change is increasing ground surface temperatures at a fairly alarming rate. Summertime temperatures in western North America are projected to be 3.6 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit higher by the middle of the century, for example. In general, global temperatures have been accelerating upwards in the past 30 years; average U.S. temperatures as a whole have increased by more than two degrees Fahrenheit in the last century. Higher temperatures, in turn, lead to higher rates of evaporation. The heat energy from the warmer air is transferred to the surface of a liquid, which makes the molecules in the liquid begin to move faster. (Think of you, on caffeine, feeling like you can run a marathon.) This means that the molecules also begin to collide with one another at an increasing rate, until some of the molecules are able to escape into the atmosphere in the form of water vapor: a process that’s more commonly known as evaporation. More evaporation means drier vegetation, or the perfect snack for a wildfire looking for a promotion.

And it’s not just rising evaporation rates that’s creating tastier fuel for wildfires. Warmer and drier conditions exacerbated by climate change are conducive to widespread beetle and other insect infestations. More infestations mean more dead trees, and more dead trees means more fuel for fires. For instance, bark beetles have been culling sickly trees in North American forests for a while. But thanks to climate change, these tiny winged insects have been working overtime. Prolonged droughts and shorter winters have allowed them to kill billions of trees in what may be the largest forest insect outbreak ever recorded—about 10 times the size of past eruptions. Plus, they’re enjoying the warmer temperatures as well. In 2008, a team of biologists at the University of Colorado observed some beetles attacking trees in June, a month earlier than previously recorded. Not to mention, climate change also weakens trees through heat and drought, making it difficult for them to fight back the way a healthy tree usually would with chemical defenses and sticky resin. From 2000 to 2012, bark beetles killed enough trees to cover the entire state of Colorado, leaving behind broad ranges of dead and highly combustible trees.

Finally, climate change is expected to lead to increased lightning strikes. More specifically, new findings suggest that lightning rates will increase 12 percent for every 2 degrees of Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures, which comes to a 50 percent increase by the end of the century across the continental United States. That would mean some 30 million lightning strikes per year by 2100. And because lightning triggers about half of those wildfires, this increase in lightning could dramatically accelerate wildfire proliferation. The reason behind this lies in the moisture. At the air warms, it becomes less dense and capable of holding more water. A more moist atmosphere means more vigorous thunderstorms, and more severe thunderstorm means more lightning strikes. Ultimately, climate change is going to provide more lightning to start wildfires, stockpile a plentiful supply of dry vegetation for them with the help of invasive species, and lengthen the fire season to give wildfires more time to burn. It’s a package deal wildfires appreciate with a burning passion.

The Smoky Southeast

Honestly, if we told you a year ago that the Southeastern United States was particularly vulnerable to threats from wildfires because of the accelerating effects of climate change, you might not have believed us. Maybe the Southwestern United States, with their cacti, and Death Valley, and all those lightning storms east of the Rockies. But the Southeast? With our intense bouts of rain and our wet, old growth forests? No way.

But you’re probably much more inclined to believe us now. In October and November 2016, a series of large wildfires raged across the Southeastern United States, including Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. They left a dramatic wake of destruction in their path: burning more than 150,000 acres, injuring nearly a hundred, and killing more than a dozen people. For some of the wildfires, we know exactly what sparked that first flame. For instance, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, two arson-committing juveniles are to blame, and were charged with aggravated arson. But for others, like the fires in western North Carolina or North Georgia, the actual causes are a bit more murky. There’s speculation it might have been accidental human activity, like campfires, or a lightning strike. But lightning has been striking and people have been stupid with fires in the Southeast for almost all of history, and these states haven’t gone up in flames, at least not like this, until just recently. So what’s changed? 

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The wet, lush Smoky Mountains—in 2004, pre-wildfires (Photo credit: E Photos/CC BY 2.0)

The biggest culprit is drought. California and the Southwest have stolen the spotlight for drought in the United States (at least until 20 inches of rain and 12 feet of snow hit this winter. And even so, not everybody is convinced enough to celebrate the end of the dry season). But while these seasonal dramas are playing out on the West Coast, America has been largely ignoring the same issues taking place in the Southeastern United States—ones that have remained a bit more resilient. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, two-thirds of the Southeastern United States is experiencing some form of drought today; in Georgia, about 20 percent of the statealmost exclusively in the North, is classified under severe, extreme, and exceptional drought. These drought conditions are significantly worse than what is now occurring in the West, which is now only considered to be experiencing “abnormally dry” intensity characteristics.

The major driving factors behind drought in the Southeast are the usual suspects: climate change, rising surface temperatures and increased evaporation. Since the 1970s, the Southeast’s average temperatures have steadily increased, breaking all the worst records. And tropical storms and hurricanes, which are usually responsible for bringing in tropical moistures from off the Gulf of Mexico, have been recently skipping over the region, probably thanks to climate change. Cyclones harvest energy from the atmosphere when masses of warm and cold air interact along the polar front, or the boundary between cooler polar air and warmer subtropical air. As the temperature between the poles and the topics decreases, there may be less energy for these storms to absorb. It doesn’t help that the trees, bushes, and understory in the Eastern United States dry out much more quickly than their counterparts in the West, because they’re not adapted to the same arid conditions. Basically, Western vegetation is used to dealing with lack of rain, but Eastern vegetation isn’t. Stressed trees means dead trees, and you know how much a wildfire loves dead trees. All together, these newly emerging weather patterns are creating the perfect tinder to breed and feed wildfires.  

If you’ve been keeping up with the wildfires in northern Georgia and the Southeastern United States, either by choice or necessity, you might have been struggling to hold your tongue through this section. “But drought season is over,” you might be wanting to blurt out. “I saw it on the news. Water conditions are improving here, and states are beginning to lift their water restrictions.” And you’d be absolutely right. But the pessimists that are cautious to celebrate the downpours in the West are the same ones giving the wet winter in the Southeast a critical eye. One of these scientists—Mark Svoboda, a climatologist who directs the National Drought Mitigation Center—told Popular Science that even if it does rain in the Southeastern United States, it’s not likely to solve the region’s water woes. He and his team have seen early indications that the Southeast might see more rain over time, but more time in-between rain events. This sentiment has been echoed in other sources, like NASA’s Earth Observatory, which predicts fewer but stronger storms.

As research compiles, a tentative picture of the future Southeastern United States is starting to form: one characterized by drought and interrupted by the occasional extreme weather event that will bring only temporary water relief to the region. To be sure, the final verdict on the region’s developing weather and climate patterns is clouded by a degree of scientific uncertainty. But it might just be hazy because of the wildfire smoke that’s sure to follow us forward.

Fighting Fire Past, Present, Future

Burn, Baby, Burn

Science astrophysicist and communicator Carl Sagan said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.” That’s especially true when it comes to wildfire control and regulation policy in the United States.

From a first glance at the data, one might conclude that United States policy on wildfires has been more or less reasonable. In the past twenty years, the average number of wildfires that have broke out per year has remained relatively consistent, waffling in the 50,000 to 100,000 range. When looking at data for acres burned, though, the situation takes a turn for the worse: even controlling for interannual variability, there’s steep incline between 1984, when 1,148,409 acres were consumed by wildfires, and 2015, when 10,125,149 acres were burned. But things get even more confusing when factoring in historical data. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the average number of fires that breaks out now is significantly fewer than the number that scorched the nation in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In fact, 1981 holds the record for most number of wildfires in a year, at nearly 250,000 compared to 2016’s 68,000. Between 1981 and 1984, the number of annual wildfires in the US took a nosedive, even as their severity increased.

These statistical patterns beg several questions: what was the United States doing to control and manage wildfires in the past? What changed in the 1980s, and why? And what are we doing now? 

The main events that set the original course for fire policy in the United States occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when a series of catastrophic wildfires led to high fatalities and sent ripples of shock and fear throughout the developing nation. On October 8, 1871, the Peshtigo Fire ravaged forests in and around Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing as many as 2,500 people to take its place as the deadliest wildfire in recorded history. A severe drought and high temperatures allowed the Santiago Canyon Fire of 1889 to burn through large parts of Orange County and San Diego County in California. The Great Fire of 1910 scorched about three million acres in northeastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana, destroying a number of communities and killing 87 people over the course of two days. Also known as the Big Blowup, the Big Burn, or the Devil’s Broom fire, the human health costs of this historic wildfire are often credited with defining fire management policies for decades afterwards.

Specifically, these giant fires supported the “fire exclusion” mentality in fire policy: the simple idea that every single fire should be immediately suppressed at all times. In fact, by 1935, the U.S. Forest Service’s official fire management policy mandated that all wildfires were to be put out by 10:00 AM the next morning after they were first spotted. It didn’t matter if the fire started from lightning or from traditional human practices, like for use in foraging, herding, or farming (as the Native Americans had done for hundreds of years). It didn’t matter if the fire threatened human civilization or helped enhance land and ecological quality. If there was a fire, it had to be put out. This mentality was promoted by an extremely effective U.S. Forest Service ad campaign to help educate the public that all fires were detrimental: a cartoon black bear named Smokey the Bear, whose iconic catchphrase “Only you can prevent forest fires” can still be found on posters. 

In some ways, the total wildfire suppression policy of the early- and mid-90s was a success. The annual average area burned by wildfires fell from 30,000,000 acres in the 1930s, to between 2,000,000 acres and 5,000,000 acres by the 1960s. During World War II, the increased demand for lumber perpetuated the idea that forests need to be preserved, since a burnt forest is not a commercially profitable one. But while the fire-exclusion strategy seemed to be in the public’s best interest, by eliminating fire entirely, forest ecosystems and national parks that evolved with fire began to choke on the thick layer of highly flammable underbrush, which freely developed without fire to keep it in check. Forests became ticking time bombs, ready to explode at the hint of heat.

Starting in 1962, protests from the burgeoning American fire community began to challenge this assumption of fire suppression policy. That year, the Tall Timber Research Station and Land Conservancy in northern Leon County, Florida hosted its first fire ecology conference, sowing the seeds of fire acting as an important ecological force. The Nature Conservancy put academic theory in practice, conducting a controlled burn in a prairie in Minnesota. At some point in the 1960s, ecologists realized that no new giant sequoia had grown in the forests of California since the fire exclusion policy was enacted, because these trees rely on fire to release seeds from their cones, expose bare mineral soil their seedlings can take root in, recycle nutrients into that soil, and open holes in forest canopy so sunlight can reach the young seedlings. Altogether, these shifts and realizations sparked a new revolution on good fire: that maybe, this formidable force of nature is a bit misunderstood. Or maybe, it’s a necessary evil natural ecosystems learned to deal with. Either way, it was beginning to become clear that forests that evolved with fire continued to rely on it. 

So, in 1968, the National Park Service changed its national policy to recognize fire as an ecological process. Fires were to be allowed to run their natural course, provided they could be contained within fire managements units and accomplished approved management objectives. In other words, by 1972, naturally-caused fires were allowed to more or less burn themselves out. Several national parks established their own fire use programs; the U.S. Forest Service followed suit with their own comprehensive overhaul of historic fire regulation in the 1970s and by abandoning their 10:00 AM policy. Fire management replaced fire suppression, and controlled fires were tolerated as long as they stayed within their predetermined boundaries. 

In theory, these new regulations should have helped control wildfires by periodically limiting their access to fuel. And on small, limited scales, there’s evidence that they worked. Specifically, the new fire management mentality took off successfully in Florida, where controlled fire became general practice. But overall, in reality, these policies fizzled out as soon as they were implemented. The 1980s were great for cable television and country music, but they were pretty rough from an environmentalist’s perspective, who often refer to the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency as “the lost years.” After all, his 1981 appointment of James G. Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Anne M. Burford as Administrator of the EPA were two well-known and aggressive champions of industry. As the U.S. Forest Service became increasingly dysfunctional and urban sprawl began colonizing the countryside, fire suppression became the default setting once more. By 1988, only about 30,000 acres of Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million acres had been burnedAccording to one official, by not controlling large swathes of the park through controlled burning, park officials essentially poured 300 gallons of gasoline on every acre every year. 

Tons of untouched underbrush, drought conditions, an extremely dry summer, high winds, and lightning were an explosive combination in the late 1980s, culminating in the Yellowstone fires of 1988. Together, the many smaller individual fires formed the largest wildfire in the recorded history of Yellowstone National Park, ravaging nearly a third of the park’s total area and forcing park officials to close the entire park to all non-emergency personnel for the first time in its history. At first, in response to wildfire on such a large scale, the American public reacted in fear and anger. They blamed Yellowstone park officials for letting wildfires burn freely, which the media coined as a “let it burn” policy. But after a quarter-inch of snow quenched the flames in September, the media offered a new angle as the park quickly bounced back from the flames: one of natural renewal as the ecosystem flourished, thanks to wildfire.

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California Army and Air National Guard helicopter pilots fly to dip site at Cherry Lake Dam west of Yosemite National Park (Photo credit: U.S. Army National Guard/CC BY 2.0)

In many ways, the widely publicized Yellowstone fires of 1988 ushered in a new era of fire management, where fires were properly recognized for the necessary ecological functions. Since 1995, federal fire policy has been significantly modified to recognize and embrace the role of fire as an essential natural process. Federal wildland fire management policy has stated since then that, “Fire, as a critical natural process, will be integrated into land and resource management plans and activities on a landscape scale, and across agency boundaries. Response to wildland fire is based on ecological, social, and legal consequences of fire.” Today, national and local wildfire policy continues to incorporate this priority into their management strategies. The most recent Guidance for Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy published by the National Interagency Fire Center in 2009 writes under its guiding principles that, “The role of wildland fire as an essential ecological process and natural change agent will be incorporated into the planning process.”

Of course, as convincing as the environmental argument is, it’s one of many oftentimes conflicting priorities when it comes to wildfire management. Under the guiding principles, the point about wildland’s ecological role is second; the primary concern, of course, is firefighter and public safety. But as people build closer and closer to wildfire-prone areas, the two principles become increasingly difficult to balance without someone getting burnt.

Mastering Firebending

Fire management, not fire suppression, is still the backbone for controlling wildfires in the US today. Just because national fire policy is more progressive and ecologically accurate than it was 50 years ago, though, doesn’t mean our work is done. In fact, the truth is far from it. Given the ongoing threats from climate change, and the fact that burned acreage is on the rise despite the significant resources we’re investing in the issue, clearly there’s something that we can be doing better. According to many first responders that work directly with fires, as well as policymakers and researchers that have seen wildfires on the rise, the wildfire-urban interface (WUI) is to blame. 

The WUI is the scientific way of saying people are living close to nature. Technically, it refers to the zone of transition where houses or human settlements are intermingling with wildland vegetation. Thanks to urbanization, American citizens are moving farther into natural areas to take advantage of the privacy, natural beauty and scenery, recreational opportunities and usually more affordable living. The WUI in the continental United States covers more than 720,000 square kilometers (9 percent of the total land area) and contains 44.8 million housing units (39 percent of all houses). And while that seems like a good deal for suburban homeowners, it’s also a trend that wildfires are loving. The benefits for fires are two-fold: first, having people so close to natural ecosystems means there’s a much higher chance that a stray source of heat will have the opportunity to spark a fire. And second, besides actually starting fires in the first place, the WUI also provides the fuel as well. 

“You have homes being built in a wildland setting, which basically makes the homes fuel during a wild land fire,” said Gilmer County Fire Department Chief Tony Pritchett. “And because you do have those homes out in the wildland or a forest setting, you get people who are more often doing things like cleaning ashes out of their fireplace, having electrical malfunctions, and other different activities that can cause a short and cause fires outside.”

The WUI isn’t a new concept, and relevant federal agencies have been factoring the trend into consideration when thinking about wildfire management strategies. For instance, the National Park Service’s 2015-2019 Wildland Fire Strategic Plan says, “Wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire issues will continue to impact the work NPS accomplishes.” Similarly, in the National Interagency Fire Center’s 2009 Guidance for Implementation of Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy, the document outlines the extra risks that an expanding WUI creates. It states the WUI is “more complex and extensive than previously considered in the 1995 and 2001 Federal Fire Policy reviews. Fire management activities affecting WUI areas require closer coordination and more engagement between with federal, state, local and tribal land and fire managers.” Later, it specifically identifies one of the organization’s key implementation goals to be “prevent[ing] the movement of wildfires from the wildlands into the WUI area, out of the WUI area into the wildlands, and improve efficiency of wildfire suppression in WUI situations.”

While heightened awareness of how the expansion of the WUI can affect fire management and control is a good sentiment, without complementary policy recommendations, it becomes difficult to translate theory into practice. In a heavily cited academic journal article on federal forest-fire policy in the United States, two researchers from the University of California, Berkeley similarly identify the WUI as a major concern. They write, “Continued growth of human populations in the urban–wildland interface is one of the most challenging issues facing fire managers because it places additional assets at risk and reduces management options.”

But they don’t just stop there. One of their concrete recommendations for fire management agencies moving forward is to place defensible fuel profile zones (DFPZs) near areas with a high potential for human-caused ignitions. DFPZs are a kind of fuel break or gap in combustible material that act as barriers to slow or stop the progress of a wildfire. Installation and maintenance of this kind of structure would make it easier for fire managers to get ahead of the flames while reducing the severity of the fire. This fire management method was once put to the test in Lassen National Forest in northeastern California—and passed! When a small wildfire burned through both the treated and untreated sections of a DFPZ, the study found that fire that went through the completed DFPZ exhibited lower intensity fire behavior, with lower flame lengths and reduced rates of spread. In turn, this resulted in much lower scorch heights and mortality compared to surrounding areas. Think of DFPZs as opportunities to trip the fire; they might not stop the wildfire entirely, but by breaking up its continuous fuel source, they help take the wind out of the fire’s sails. 

One of the main problems when it comes to making recommendations to fire management strategies is that there aren’t really enforced policies or laws. The logic is that local communities, states, and regions work with wildfires under very different conditions, so it’s best to give them the freedom to make the best decisions for their specific circumstances. And while preserving a degree of independence is important, doing so can sometimes sacrifice enforcement. For instance, it’s commonly understood that one of the most effective ways to minimize unnaturally severe wildfires is to reduce the potential fire’s access to fuels in the form of leaf litter and dead vegetation. To this end, many current fire policies treat at-risk forests through controlled or prescribed burning. However, because fire managers are given so much leeway, there is little, if any, evaluation of the treatment effectiveness. In fact, most fuel treatments on U.S. Forest Service lands do not even measure the level of fuels before and after treatment to see if the fuels-management program works at all. Increased monitoring and evaluation is necessary to explore if our current strategies are effective.

It’s not just levels of fuel that fire managers don’t know, however. Despite how much we’ve learned since the 1930s, when it comes to wildfires, there is still a lot of uncertainty involved—especially when it comes to global climate change. Predicting future high-fire risk areas by developing new climate models could help prevent damage or destruction in those areas. On a smaller scale, we also need more information on wildfires and their effects in more localized, regional situations. Being more knowledgeable about wildfires as a whole could help inform effective wildfire management policy, and analysis of those policies, in turn, would ensure that policymakers are exploring all possible strategies and constantly reevaluating for improvement. Basically, like Fergie says, a little more research never killed nobody. (Unless it’s on radioactive materials. Or wildfires, actually.)

Like Smokey Said

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of a wildfire. In some ways, humans have always sought out nature to make us feel small. There’s something calming about stargazing and contemplating the infinite vastness of the universe, or standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon trying to wrap your mind around the roaring Colorado River. But there’s a time and a place for that, and it’s certainly not in the midst of a natural disaster. If you’re confronting a wildfire head-on, fascinated by the sheet of flames, it might be too late for you. (Unless it’s a controlled, prescribed burn, in which case, good for your local fire management agency!). But either way, you’re definitely not reading this, so this section isn’t written with you in mind anyway. Because when it comes to the everyday citizen and wildfires, the name of the game is prevention. 

In some ways, the best thing you can do to prevent the spread of severe wildfires is to not start them, intentionally or unintentionally. Even though natural and controlled fires help nourish ecosystems that evolved with fires, as many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are started by people, whether they result from unattended campfires, debris burning, negligently discarded cigarettes, or intentional acts of arson. This burden of responsibility on average people is part of what makes wildfires unique; try as one might, it’s not really possible to set off a hurricane or whirl up a sand storm on your own. But it can be really easy to spark a wildfire. 

Most strategies for reducing your risk of igniting a large-scale wildfire is to use your common sense when you’re working with fire. First and foremost, in general, never leave a fire unattended. It only takes one stray ember to fall on some dead leaves before you have a situation on your hands. Make sure that you have completely extinguished the fire before sleeping or leaving the campsite, by dousing it with water and stirring the ashes until they’re cold. Trust us, it’s never fun to wake up to the smell of acrid smoke inside your tent. In the same vein, when camping, be careful if you’re using and fueling lanterns, stoves, heaters, or any other devices that contain some kind of light or heat source. Always make sure that these devices are cool before refueling them, and avoid spilling any flammable liquids and store fuel near your appliances. Remember, this isn’t fifth grade science lab—this is nature.

Even though your risk for starting a wildfire is probably higher when you’re camping, continue to stay vigilant in your local community. Don’t discard cigarettes, matches, or any smoking materials from moving vehicles, and feel free to yell at your friends if you notice them doing so. Before disposing of cigarettes, make sure that they are completely extinguished, especially if you are in a natural setting. If you’re in the city, you should still completely extinguish it, unless you want to accidentally light a dumpster on fire and ruin a garbage collector’s day. If you want to burn your yard waste, make sure you follow local ordinances. In Georgia, you’d need a permit, and there’s almost always an open burning ban every summer when ozone levels are at their highest. If or when you do burn, try to avoid doing so in windy conditions that might let embers hitch a ride to your neighboring forest, and keep a shovel, water, and some fire retardant handy just in case. This probably goes without saying, but make sure to remove all flammables from the yard during burning.

If you’re hungry to make wildfire prevention a larger part of your local community, consider partnering with like-minded organizations. The National Fire Protection Association is a global nonprofit organization that’s devoted to minimizing death, injury, and property and economic loss due to fire, as well as electrical and related hazards. Their Firewise Communities Program, co-sponsored by big names like the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters, works to develop local solutions for fire safety by teaching people to adapt to living with wildfire, and encouraging communities to work together to take action. Their site says, “We all have a role to play in protecting ourselves and each other from the risk of wildfire.” Their USA Recognition Program encourages communities to develop an action plan for their neighborhood based on a wildfire risk assessment, and join the organization’s growing network of more than 1300 recognized Firewise communities across the country. They also offer educational materials, online courses, and other resources to help homeowners protect themselves and their property from damage.

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USDA Assistant Secretary of Administration Dr. Gregory Parham stressed importance of emergency plan during Preparedness Month Celebration event at USDA Farmers Market, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: USDA)

Of course, sometimes, prevention isn’t enough. If you’re advised to evacuate, do so immediately. Develop an evacuation route ahead of time, and prepare an evacuation checklist and emergency supplies. That way, if the fire is at your door, you’re ready (to run away from it). If you have time, wear protective clothing and footwear to protect yourself from any flying sparks, embers, or ashes. Should you ever be in a situation where the wildfire has caught up to you, don’t panic and don’t try to outrun the blaze. Instead, find a body of water, like a pond or river, that you can crouch in. If there’s no water nearby, look for a depressed, cleared area with little vegetation that could look like a snack for a hungry wildfire. Lie low to the ground, and cover your body with wet clothing, a blanket, or soil to look as unappealing as possible to the flames. Stay covered until the fire passes, and breath air as close to the ground and through some kind of cloth filter, if possible, to avoid inhaling smoke and to protect your lungs. Wait it out. You’re playing a game of incentives that you can’t afford to lose. 

Hopefully, you never find yourself in a situation like that. If everybody stays alert and prepared for wildfire, more researchers study the links between wildfire, local situations, and its effects, and policymakers create enforceable mechanisms for wildfire management, there’s a good chance you never will. But it never hurts to be prepared.

Chapter section photo of Chief Pritchett at fire on Flat Branch Road in May 2015 used with permission from Department Photographer Al Cash. Chapter section photo of fighting 2013 California wildfires by helicopter used under Creative Commons licensing by Chris Fahey/DVIDSHUB

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Show Key Terms

Key Terms

Carcinogen: substances and exposures that can cause cancer
Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA): devices that provide first responders with breathable air isolated from outdoor contaminants
Particulate matter (PM): solid and liquid particles in the air that are often hazardous to respiratory health
Wildland-urban interface (WUI): zone of transition between human development and natural land, where homes are especially at risk for wildfire damage
Controlled burn: also called a prescribed burn; a technique used in fire management to reduce fuel accumulation and wildfire severity
Underbrush: the shrubs and small trees that form the undergrowth of a forest
Biological volatile organic compounds: VOCs that are emitted by natural sources, like vegetation, and contribute to ground-level ozone and wildfire formation
Fire triangle: a simple model for understanding the necessary ingredients for igniting and sustaining fires (heat, fuel, oxygen)
Ecosystem: a community of living organisms and the nonliving components of their environment
Arson: the criminal act of deliberating setting a fire with the intent of causing damage
Free radical: any atom, molecule, or ion with an unpaired, and thus highly reactive, electron in its outer orbit
Scavenger receptor: a protein found on the surface of a macrophage that helps identify and remove foreign molecules
Macrophage: a white blood cell that engulfs and absorbs foreign particles and microorganisms through phagocytosis
Cytokine: small proteins that signal immune cells to travel to a site of infection; when unchecked, can lead to a cytokine storm feedback loop
Apoptosis: programmed cell death that help multicellular organisms eliminate old, unnecessary, or unhealthy cells
Fire season: periods of the year in which a wildfire is most likely to occur, spread, and require fire management
Fire exclusion: the idea of controlling wildfire through total suppression; the dominant policy for wildfire control up to the mid-1900s in the U.S.

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