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OnAir@AAAR: Wildfire sparks idea in EPA scientist

2010 March 30

Bob Devlin was 100 miles away from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge when he looked out a window and noticed something strange.

The thick smog he noticed that day in the summer of 2008 appeared suspicious because it wasn’t smog… it was smoke.

Though far removed, Devlin caught a firsthand glimpse of the smoke plume emanating from a huge wildfire that ravaged over 30,000 acres of eastern North Carolina.

“That was the day that started it all,” Devlin said Wednesday at the AAAR conference.

After the fire, he quickly banded together a large group of scientists to collaborate on an innovative project. He sought to not only study the health effects of such a large fire, but to do so in a way that communities and states could mimic cheaply and easily during future wildfire events.

Using satellite imagery, Devlin and his colleagues looked at every North Carolina county that was covered in smoke during the three worst days of the fire. They also collected easily accessible data on daily emergency room visits during the worst fire days.

Devlin found significant spikes in emergency room visits for asthma, heart failure, arrhythmia, and pneumonia in counties that were covered in smoke during the worst wildfire days.

The data is unique for two reasons. It is the first time such associations between wildfire pollution and emergency room visits due to cardiovascular problems have been made (previously, only respiratory effects were reported). It is also one of the first case studies of a peat fire, which, in contrast to a normal wildfire, emits pollution particles closer to the ground where people may more readily inhale them.

While the findings are interesting in their own right, the larger significance of the study lies in the ability of the public health community to replicate Devlin’s analysis cheaply, easily, and without sophisticated statistical methods.

“Anybody can access these satellite images, count up the counties covered in smoke, and look at emergency room visits,” Devlin explained.

“In the future, public health officials can use this method to make decisions… [they can decide] for example, whether elderly people should be removed from the path of wildfire smoke.”

The next step, Devlin said, is to continue analysis of the 2008 fire by incorporating data on actual hospital admissions.

For an abstract of Devlin’s work, visit

About the Author: Becky Fried is a science writer with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. Her OnAir posts are a regular “Science Wednesday” feature.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    March 30, 2010

    The universe angry to the people, animals, plants and microbiology that why we don’t maintain this planet, however the other planets want destroy us. Actually, they are jealous to the earth, because only our planet has everything, completely and perfectly…..

  2. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    March 30, 2010

    This is important research with major impacts on the senior and disabled communities. A wildfire is a force of nature not easily controlled, but by showing the pollution from the smoke will increase cardiovascular problems and breathing problems, public health planners can do outreach and education to seniors and disabled on the danger of wildfire smoke exposure. This is information that also will be important to planning for and providing accessible evacuation transportation and accessible evacuation shelters for seniors and disabled persons. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  3. Al Bannet permalink
    March 31, 2010

    So many people want to live in a beautiful house in the woods surrounded by Nature, but then along comes a wildfire and sweeps it all away, destroying their delusions of grandeur! But thousands of others in the growing population soon follow behind them, and the builders make lots of money as the turnover keeps them well employed.

  4. David Mc permalink
    March 31, 2010

    Your right Al. In the meantime w will spend millions to tear down tens of thousands of perfectly good houses in Detroit etc this year.

  5. Al Bannet permalink
    April 1, 2010

    Money talks and the people walk.

  6. Rye permalink
    April 4, 2010

    I thought you’re an advocate for lowering the population? If that’s the case, won’t we all be living in wooded areas? There won’t be as much need for urban living.

  7. c.v.antony permalink
    April 5, 2010

    Humans destroy this perfect planet for ever.Who will resist that.?

  8. May 29, 2012

    Our trees should not be put in risk. Scientists are there to help and maintain our nature and not destroy. Thanks and save trees!

  9. Appliance Repair Los Angeles permalink
    August 22, 2012

    Its not only our trees, what about recycling our old appliances and electronics? We do not have infinite resources, one day we will be digging up our old electronics to use the steal and copper.

  10. Appliance Repair Services permalink
    November 7, 2012

    I agree with the previous comment. We need t,o recycle our old appliances and repair them when possible. Appliance Repair Services in San Diego” is a great way to save money and the environment.

  11. Appliance repair in Orange County permalink
    January 8, 2013

    Wild fires are bad, but preventable. We should save trees!

  12. Orange County Appliance Repair permalink
    June 17, 2014

    Wild fires are natural, they help to maintain nature balance, new trees come after the old ones got burned. Humans just need to put up with it.

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