As wildfires become more common, smoke season in Idaho is becoming a public health hazard

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

Every time there is a jump in the air quality index – the hazardous air rating – there is an increase in hospital admissions, they said.

“When you start getting bad smoke, like three or four weeks ago, there’s usually a lag time for the smoke to really start to get around,” Pidcock said in an interview Wednesday. “And three to five days after that, when you start getting a lot of phone calls, it’s like, ‘Hey, I can’t breathe.'”

As a pulmonologist at St. Alphonsus Health System, Pidcock sees those patients in the hospital and sometimes in the intensive care unit — with their underlying health conditions under control until the smoke enters.

“And you’d think it’s only for respiratory illnesses, but it’s not,” said Sims, an emergency physician at St. Luke’s Health System. “It’s really for all comers.”

Elderly people, children and people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease struggle the most when fire smoke is in the air.

Sims and Pidcock said these are just people with health problems. Studies of blood samples from wildland firefighters, tobacco smokers, and people exposed to wildfire smoke have shown that chronic or long-term exposure to smoke is not healthy for everyone.

As doctors in one of the nation’s fire capitals, they worry about what it means for public health when it’s smoggy and smells like campfires.

What happens to your body when you inhale fire smoke?

Scientists and health professionals 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.

“Although recent studies have shown that air quality for the contiguous United States has improved due to reductions in industrial and automotive emissions…air pollution in wildfire-prone areas, particularly in the US Mountain West, has increased and is projected to worsen. climate-mediated increases in wildfire activity,” the scientists wrote in 2020 A study by researchers at the University of Montana.

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

Hospitals and clinics are seeing patients come in as the smoke comes in – struggling to breathe as they inhale the tiny particles in the air. But smoke also has a lasting effect.

“So there’s kind of an immediate effect, but also kind of a delayed effect because it takes a long time for your lungs to recover from being exposed to smoke,” Sims said. “Imagine if you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day for two weeks, the day you quit, your lungs will not return to normal. “If you smoke two packs of cigarettes for 10 years, or even one month a year, for 10 years, the effect is additive.”

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Sims and Pidcock said they advise their patients and anyone else who can to check air quality reports and stay indoors when the air quality is healthy. They tell patients to close windows, use air filters if they have them, run air conditioners or fans with clean filters, and seek emergency medical care immediately if smoke makes them feel sick; Very often, patients said that they wait until they have difficulty breathing.

But as they point out, not everyone can afford to install a high-quality HEPA filter to clean the air in their homes, workplaces and schools.

Wildfire activity in Idaho has increased during a hot and dry summer

States like California and Oregon have experienced a toll from wildfires in recent years — people have been injured and killed, homes have burned and entire towns have been displaced.

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

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

Idaho’s wet spring delayed the start of fire season, but a hot, dry summer increased fire danger and activity.

Dustin Miller, director of the Idaho Department of Lands, told the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners Tuesday morning at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise that 347,871 acres have burned in Idaho so far this year.

This figure includes federal, state and private land.

“August was certainly warmer than average, and fire size and frequency increased throughout the month,” Miller said.

One of the issues now is that many seasonal firefighters have gone back to school, Miller told the dry board. Firefighters are college students who sometimes fight fires outside as a summer job.

He said the state has called on some fire crews to help with firefighting efforts on state lands managed by the Idaho Department of Lands.

“Resources have been depleted, but we’re getting some relief now with cooler temperatures and some scattered precipitation,” Miller said. “Elevated fire danger remains for many parts of the state, but shorter days and improving conditions are helping our firefighting efforts.”

The largest fire in Idaho this year is the Moose Fire, located in the Salmon-Challis National Forest just outside of Stanley, which has burned more than 130,000 acres since July 17. Event Information System report. As of Tuesday, fire officials said the Moose Fire’s perimeter was 51% contained. However, they did not expect the fire to be fully extinguished by October 31.

On Tuesday, based in Boise The National Interdepartmental Fire Center reported on this Idaho has 38 major wildfires, the most in the nation. Fire officials also reported 27 large fires in Montana, 13 large fires in Washington and six large fires in California and Oregon.

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