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As wildfires become common, Idaho’s smoke season becomes a public health hazard


As wildfires become common, Idaho’s smoke season becomes a public health hazard

Sep 23, 2022 | 6:26 am ET
By Audrey Dutton Clark Corbin
As wildfires become common, Idaho’s smoke season becomes a public health hazard
The Moose Fire crests the ridge west of Salmon on Sept. 7. The human-caused fire has burned more than 125,000 acres since starting July 17. (Courtesy of National Wildfire Coordinating Group Incident Information System)

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

Every time there is a spike in the air quality index — a rating for hazardous air — there is a spike in hospital visits, they said.

“When we start getting bad smoke — like three or four weeks ago — there’s usually a lag time for when the smoke really starts getting into the environment,” Pidcock said in an interview Wednesday. “And then it’s like, three to five days after that, is when you start getting lots of phone calls being like, ‘Hey, I can’t breathe.’”

As a pulmonologist for Saint Alphonsus Health System, Pidcock sees those patients in the hospital and sometimes in the intensive care unit — with underlying health conditions that were under control until the smoke moved in.

“And you would think that it’s just for respiratory disease, but it’s not,” said Sims, who is an emergency physician with St. Luke’s Health System. “It’s really for all comers.”

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

But those are just the people who have immediate health problems, Sims and Pidcock said. Studies of wildland firefighters, tobacco smokers and blood samples of people exposed to wildfire smoke have indicated that chronic or long-term exposure to smoke is unhealthy for everyone.

As doctors in one of the nation’s wildfire capitals, they are concerned about what it means for public health when the air turns hazy and smells of campfire.

What happens to your body when you inhale wildfire smoke?

Scientists and health care providers 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.

“While recent studies have shown air quality improving for the contiguous U.S. from the reduction of industrial and vehicular emissions … air pollution in wildfire-prone areas, particularly in the mountain West region of the U.S., has increased and is projected to further worsen due to climate-mediated increases in wildfire activity,” scientists wrote in a 2020 study led by researchers at the University of Montana.

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

Hospitals and clinics see patients come in as soon as the smoke blows in — with trouble breathing due to inhaling those tiny particles in the air. But the smoke has a lasting impact, too.

“So there’s sort of an immediate effect, but also sort of a delayed effect, because it takes your lungs a long time to recover from exposure” to the smoke, Sims said. “Think of it like, if you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day for two weeks, your lungs are not going to get back to normal the day you stop smoking the last cigarette. And if you smoke two packs of cigarettes for 10 years, even just for a month a year, for 10 years, that effect is additive.”

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Sims and Pidcock said they advise their patients — and anyone who can — to watch air quality reports and stay indoors when the air quality is unhealthy. They tell patients to close windows, run air filters if they have them available, keep their air conditioners or fans cycling with clean filters, and to call their primary care provider immediately if the smoke is making them feel unwell; too often, they said, patients wait until they’re struggling to breathe.

But as they noted, not everyone has the means to set up a high-quality HEPA filter to clean the air in their home, workplace or school.

Idaho’s wildfire activity increased over the hot, dry summer

States like California and Oregon have experienced untold human devastation from wildfires in recent years — people injured and killed, homes burned and entire towns displaced.

But when it comes to sheer wildfire activity, Idaho has become the acres-burned capital of the continental U.S.

Fire season now regularly brings unhealthy air conditions to Idaho and to its neighbors downwind of the blazes.

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

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

That figure includes federal, state and private land.

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

The Idaho Board of Land Commissioners is made up of Idaho’s governor, secretary of state, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction and state controller. The board’s job is to provide direction to the Idaho Department of Lands for managing more than 2.5 million acres of state endowment lands in Idaho.

One of the issues now is that many seasonal firefighters have returned to school, Miller told the land board. Firefighters are sometimes college students who take on wildland firefighting as a summer job. 

On state lands managed by the Idaho Department of Lands, the state has been turning to some non fire staff to help pitch in with fire suppression efforts when they can, he said. 

“Resources have been stretched thin, but we are now getting some relief with cooler temperatures and some scattered precipitation,” Miller said. “High fire danger still remains in many parts of the state, but shortening days and improved conditions are assisting our firefighting efforts.”

The largest fire in Idaho this year is the Moose Fire, which is located on the Salmon-Challis National Forest just outside Stanley and has burned more than 130,000 acres since July 17. The fire was human-caused, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Incident Information System report. As of Tuesday, fire officials reported that 51% of the perimeter of the Moose Fire was contained. However, they did not expect to have the fire fully contained until Oct. 31.

On Tuesday, the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center reported that there are 38 large wildfires burning in Idaho, the most in the country. Officials with the fire center reported there were also 27 large fires burning in Montana, 13 large fires in Washington and six large fires in both California and Oregon.