We’re at Our Best When We Work Together: The 2016 Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials

By Wayne Cascio and Susan Stone

The summer wildfire season is upon us and almost every day we hear of communities endangered by wildfire or wildfire smoke.  Even now, as we write this blog, there are more than 20 large wildfires across the U.S. that could be affecting your health.  So, when wildfires threaten, where can public officials, communities, and individuals turn for the most up-to-date public health guidance?  They can look to the 2016 Wildfire Smoke: Guide for Public Health Officials.  The Guide has been a trusted source of information for those responsible for protecting the public’s health and welfare since 2001.

cover of the wildfire guideThe updated 2016 guide is an easy-to-use source of information that outlines whose health is most affected by wildfire smoke, how to reduce exposure to smoke, what public health actions are recommended, and how to communicate air quality to the public.  This just-published guide is the product of a collaborative undertaking by federal, state, and non-governmental wildfire experts. These include EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Forest Service, California Air Resources Board, California Department of Public Health, Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The recommendations are founded on scientific evidence, and EPA researchers have contributed much to our understanding of the adverse health effects of wildfire smoke.  Today, EPA researchers are actively working to increase what we know about the health effects of the smoke produced by different kinds of natural fuels such as grasses, pine and hardwood forests and peat.  We are learning about the chemistry of the emissions of wildfires, how the smoke is transported, and how it changes over time.  We are also looking at ways to identify communities at particularly high risk from the health effects of wildfire, and how policies related to air quality could consider wildfire smoke.

The increasing size and severity of wildfire in the U.S. over the last three decades represents one of the many complex environmental health challenges we face today that are best solved through the cooperation of local, state and federal government, public health organizations, communities and individuals.  The fact that wildfires are contributing to a greater proportion of our air pollution, and impacting populated areas more frequently underscores the importance of this challenge.  The 2016 Wildfire Smoke: Guide for the Public Health Officials represents a great example of cooperation to meet an environmental challenge and protect the health of the public.

You can learn more about the health effects of wildfires, obtain current fire advisories, and learn what to do before, during, and after a fire on the AirNow website, a place to get information on daily air quality forecasts based on EPA’s Air Quality Index.

USDA Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program

Learn about EPA’s wildland fire research

About the authors:

Dr. Wayne Cascio spent more than 25 years as a cardiologist before joining EPA’s Office of Research and Development where he now leads research on the links between exposures to air pollution and public health, and how people can use that information to maintain healthy hearts.

Susan Stone, senior environmental scientist in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, is the Air Quality Index team leader, the project lead for revisions to the wildfire guide, and contributor to EPA wildfire health research.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Simulating Wildland Fires in a Tube to Protect Public Health

By Dina Abdulhadi

After a long day of backpacking in the woods, I always look forward to watching the story arc of a campfire. The flames grow slowly, then leap up as the fire builds momentum. As the fire calms, the logs smolder and glow with heat.

Wildfires have similar phases. During an active fire, flames rapidly move over the landscape. The remaining embers can smolder on for days to weeks after the fire front passes, depending on what trees or other vegetation are there to fuel the fire. These two factors—what is burning and whether it’s flaming or smoldering—affect the smoke that people ultimately breathe.

To study the potential health risks of breathing wildfire smoke, a major form of air pollution, researchers at EPA are now using a technology that mimics these phases of a fire in a laboratory in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Originally developed to investigate tobacco’s health effects, this Biomass Furnace System allows researchers to study the chaotic nature of fire in a controlled setting and compare emissions from different trees during the fire and smoldering stages. Knowing these differences will provide more information to protect public health and enable air quality managers to prepare for the increased wildfires we expect in the future due to climate change and drought.

Tube used to conduct simulation

Biomass Fuel Combustion System

 

Particulate matter (PM) is one of the main pollutants created by fire. These tiny particles are produced when anything is burned—whether that’s the logs to your campfire or gasoline ignited to fuel your car’s engine. Many studies have linked it to effects on the heart and lungs.

During 2011, wildfires and controlled burns alone contributed up to 41 percent of emitted PM pollution in the U.S. This pollution can have drastic effects on the local community, but it can also affect the air breathed by those far away as the smoke drifts.

To understand the growing impact of wildfires on human health, researchers plan to look at effects on the heart, nervous system (such as headaches), and respiratory system from a variety of wood fuels by using models. They’ll also investigate if PM from wildfire smoke is more or less harmful than PM from other sources of air pollution, like car exhaust.

map of potential fires across US

Map showing distribution of potential wildfire fuels across the United States (Credit: Yongho Kim)

According to the National Fire Center, two fires are burning right now in my state of North Carolina alone. When you consider what could be happening in the other 49 states as well, this kind of research becomes that much more valuable for scientists working to protect public health.

Want to learn more about the research EPA conducts on wildfires to protect human health and the environment? Listen to our Science Bite Podcast Following the Smoke: Wildfires and Health.

About the author: Dina Abdulhadi is a student contractor working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Climate Change and Wildfires: What’s the Connection?

By Krystnell A. Storr

Forest fire and rising smoke

Forest fire

For me, fire comes from the end of a match or the flick of a lighter—a controllable little ball of fury the size of a fingertip. For others, it is the transformation of the towering pine trees that surround homes and roadways into a horde of fiery giants. Its march, dangerous and unruly, has made one thing very clear: the rise of wildfire activity in the U.S. is an important scientific and environmental issue—one that that is being amplified by the effects of climate change.

To determine an amount of wildfire activity in a given year, scientists measure the area burned.  The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports that in 2012 alone, 67,774 wildland fires burned through more than nine million acres of U.S. land, three times more than the five-year averages from a few decades ago.

Wildfires are unpredictable and containing them can be challenging and dangerous. According to the NIFC, last year the total direct costs of fire suppression exceeded 1.9 billion dollars nationwide. But that’s not all: wildfires are a major source of airborne pollutants such as fine particulate matter that can lead to serious health issues.

In a study funded by EPA, scientists are modeling projections of wildfire activity fifty years from now. The study takes into account the possible effects of global warming—changing vegetation and less precipitation—in areas already prone to wildfire activity, to determine how future fires may affect air quality.

Using past data, the team built models that link wildfire activity to meteorological conditions. The scientists estimate that by the year 2050, wildfire activity is expected to double in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains Forest, and the Eastern Rockies/Great Plains regions.

The team showed that we may experience shorter springs and warmer summers that in turn would mean prolonged periods of wildfire activity. According to the study, the combination of a longer fire season and an increase in the acreage burned could have impacts far beyond the immediate fire zone, negatively affecting visibility in national parks and wilderness areas and worsening the air quality.

Results of the study have been published online in the scientific journal Atmospheric Environment.

Although a number of wildfire smoke forecasting methods are available, there is no systematic program aimed to lessen the public health burden in nearby communities. In another study, EPA scientists are evaluating the possibility of using smoke forecasts to help societies cope with and recover from wildfires. Understanding how climate change impacts the frequency and severity of wildfires, and in turn our environment and health, is one of the Agency’s priorities and an issue we should all be concerned about.

About the Author: Krystnell A. Storr is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.