Where there's fire, there's smoke: The dangers of wildfire smoke

(KATU File Photo)

Wildfire season is starting early, but the flames aren’t the only thing that can hurt you.

Wildfire smoke seems to get to everyone.

“What’s happening is, the fires are getting larger,” said Mark Graw with the U.S. Forest Service. “Over the past five or 10 years, we’ve seen the patterns getting bigger. And those put out a lot of smoke.”

That can make it dangerous for some people with asthma or emphysema to even take a breath.

“People get wheezy. They cough more, they bring up phlegm, and they feel like their symptoms are out of control. And that may lead to emergency room visits and hospitalizations,” said Dr. Gopal Allada, a pulmonary and critical care specialist.

Smoke in the air is measured by particulate matter – a fraction of the size of human hair – and the air quality index tells you when there’s too much.

An AQI of more than 150 is not healthy for anybody.

“These wildfires have really changed the ballgame in terms of how bad the air can be in our very neighborhood,” said Allada.

In August of last year, smoke filled the air in Portland, even though the fires were burning hundreds of miles away. Lower altitude winds brought smoke from Canada while upper winds brought smoke from the south. At the time, Portland had the worst air quality of any major city in the country.

Doctors say breathing air like that can be like inhaling an entire pack of cigarettes.

“I have changed my practice patterns to talk about proper masks they should get – that they can get easier right now than when the wildfire season starts,” said Allada.

New high-tech tools like they use at Cira, the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere in Colorado, are catching small fires before they get out of control. For some, the solution to too much smoke is simple.

“Fire prevention equals smoke prevention. I don’t think people always equate those two,” said Graw.

Two things cause wildfires: Lightning and humans.

In 2018, three quarters of the wildfires across the United States were started by people. Almost all of the Northwest fires so far this year were too.

One obstacle to forecasting where the smoke is going in the Northwest is the cloud cover we often get. It can block the view. Researchers say they’re working on ways to get around that.

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