Firefighter in South Africa killed while battling wildfire

The firefighter was killed while working on a wildfire in the Simonsberg Mountain area

Makelepe Cedric Seokoma
Makelepe Cedric Seokoma

A firefighter in South Africa was killed  February 5 while working on a wildfire in South Africa. Makelepe Cedric Seokoma was a Base Manager for Working on Fire.

Mr. Seokoma passed away while working to contain a wildfire in the Simonsberg Mountain area near Klapmuts in the Western Cape.

Originally from the Limpopo Province, Mr. Seokoma leaves behind his wife and children. He started at Working on Fire in 2004 and moved up the ranks to the crew leader position, then Instructor. At the time of his untimely passing, he was the the Base Manager in the Western Cape.

The organization employs 5,000 young men and women trained as veld and wildland firefighters stationed in over 200 bases throughout South Africa.

On January 29 another firefighter in South Africa died while on duty. Candice (Ashley) Kruger was helping to suppress a wildfire on the lower slopes of Table Mountain when she collapsed and later passed away in a hospital. She was in her ninth year with the Fire and Rescue Service in Cape Town and was assigned to the Roeland Street Fire Station.

Study shows firefighters’ exposure to smoke increases disease risk

Depending on the type of work performed and the number of years of exposure, the increased risk can be 22 to 39 percent.

Above: Smoky conditions on the Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park in South Dakota, December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Originally published at 6:02 p.m. MT, February 6, 2018.

After collecting data from wildland firefighters in the field, a group of researchers concluded that firefighters’ exposure to smoke can increase the risk of mortality from lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and cardiovascular disease. In this first section we cover what is in vegetation fire smoke, and after that we have details about the additional mortality risk faced by firefighters who can’t help but breathe the toxic substances.

What is in the air that firefighters breathe?

There have been many studies about smoke dating back to the 1988 NIOSH project at the fires in Yellowstone National Park. Most of them confirmed that yes, wildland firefighters ARE exposed to smoke and in most cases they quantified the amount.

In 2004 Timothy E. Reinhardt and Roger D. Ottmar  found a witches’ brew of methyl ethyl bad stuff that firefighters are breathing. All of these are hazardous to your health:

  • Aldehydes (volatile organic compounds); can cause immediate irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, and inhalation can cause inflammation of the lungs. Short-term effects include cough, shortness of breath, and chest pain. The most abundant aldehyde in smoke is formaldehyde. When formaldehyde enters the body, it is converted to formic acid, which also is toxic.
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO²); causes severe irritation of the eyes, skin, upper respiratory tract, and mucous membranes, and also can cause bronchoconstriction. It forms sulfuric acid in the presence of water vapor and has been shown to damage the airways of humans.
  • Carbon monoxide (CO); As CO is inhaled it displaces O2 as it attaches to red blood cells and forms COHb. COHb reduces the ability of the blood to carry oxygen and causes hypoxia (a condition in which the body does not receive sufficient oxygen). Due to their strenuous work, wildland firefighters often have increased respiratory rates, which will increase the amount of CO being inhaled when smoke is present. COHb has a half-life (the time it takes half of the COHb to dissipate from the body) of about 5 hours. Symptoms of CO exposure include headaches, dizziness, nausea, loss of mental acuity, and fatigue. Prolonged, high exposure can cause confusion and loss of consciousness
  • Particulate matter; Respirable particulates are a major concern as they can be inhaled into the deeper recesses of the lungs, the alveolar region. These particles carry absorbed and condensed toxicants into the lungs
  • Acrolein; may increase the possibility of respiratory infections. It can cause irritation of the nose, throat, and lungs. Long-term effects can include chronic respiratory irritation and permanent loss of lung function if exposure occurs over many years.
  • Benzene; can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and respiratory tract irritation. Although the human body can often recover and repair damage caused by irritants, prolonged exposure from extended work shifts and poorly ventilated fire camps can overwhelm the ability to repair damage to genes and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
  • Crystalline silica; can cause silicosis, a noncancerous lung disease that affects lung function. But OSHA classifies it as a carcinogen.
  • Intermediate chemicals; have been shown to cause a variety of health problems including bronchopulmonary carcinogenesis, fibrogenesis, pulmonary injury, respiratory distress, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and inflammation.

One of the more recent research efforts, from 2009 to 2012, was led by George Broyles of the U.S. Forest Service, National Technology and Development Program, in Boise, Idaho. They collected data in 11 fuel models in 17 states on initial attack, prescribed burns, and large project fires. The group measured carbon monoxide (CO) with electronic datalogging dosimeters and particulate matter using air pumps and filters.

carbon monoxide exposure firefighters
Data from the 2009-2012 wildland firefighter study led by George Broyles. “TWA” stands for Time Weighted Average. CO is carbon monoxide. OEL is Occupational Exposure Limits.

Monitoring carbon monoxide (CO) can be important, and is also fairly easy to do and not terribly expensive. Researchers have found that it can be a surrogate for the primary irritants of concern in wildland smoke near the combustion source. If CO is present, it’s almost certain that the smorgasbord of nasty stuff is in the air.

wildfire smoke monitoring firefighters
Jon Richert displays the various devices the National Technology Development Center research crews use to measure the amount of smoke firefighters deal with during wildfire suppression. This equipment was used in 2016 in a different but similar study than the one described in this article.
Diffusion tube
Diffusion tube.

Electronic CO monitors are available for $100 to $300. Another option is the little disposable CO monitors called diffusion tubes. With the holder they are about the size of a dry erase marker. Many are made by Drager, and for eight hours can record the cumulative CO. You can’t get an instantaneous reading, but the total hourly exposure can be monitored. They cost about $13 each. If one or two people on the crew carry them it can provide a heads up if the air quality is really bad.

What are the health effects of smoke exposure on a wildland fire?

Employers in most if not all workplaces are required to minimize hazards and provide a safe working environment. But of course it is impossible to totally eliminate all risks to firefighters. A cynic might assume that leadership in the wildland fire community may be hesitant to ask the question if they don’t want to hear the answer.

In spite of numerous studies confirming that yes, there is smoke where wildland firefighters work, there has been little in the literature that quantifies the effects on a person’s health. A new study published in August, 2017 contains a preliminary analysis addressing that question.

It is titled Wildland Fire Smoke Health Effects on Wildland Firefighters and the Public – Final Report to the Joint Fire Science Program. The authors are Joe Domitrovich, George Broyles, Roger D. Ottmar, Timothy E. Reinhardt, Luke P. Naeher, Michael T. Kleinman, Kathleen M. Navarro, Christopher E. Mackay, and Olorunfemi Adetona.

They used the field data collected in the 2009 to 2012 George Broyles study to extrapolate the physical and health effects on humans. The authors actually came up with numbers that indicate firefighters’ relative mortality risk for lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, and cardiovascular disease.
Continue reading “Study shows firefighters’ exposure to smoke increases disease risk”

Forest Service releases cause of the Whittier Fire

The fire burned 18,430 acres northwest of Santa Barbara, California in July, 2017

Six months after the Whittier Fire stopped spreading the U.S. Forest Service has released the cause of the blaze. The investigation determined that a vehicle driving through tall grass near Camp Whittier ignited the fire.

The Forest Service did not file criminal charges. Due to the age of the driver, the agency will not release any additional details of the investigation.

The Whittier Fire started July 8 on Bureau of Reclamation land and quickly spread onto National Forest System lands northwest of Santa Barbara, California. The fire burned 18,430 acres until it stopped spreading July 20.

The fire has been in the news since a U.S. Forest Service firefighter, Dave Dahlberg, was introduced and honored by President Trump at the January 30 State of the Union Address. Mr. Dahlberg helped rescue 62 children and staff members when the Whittier Fire encircled their camp.

David Dahlberg meets Sonny Perdue.
David Dahlberg meets Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. Dept. of Agriculture photo. Mr. Dahlberg saved dozens of children and adults that were encircled by the Whittier Fire.

Drip torches and snow machines

The jobs of some wildland firefighters change dramatically during the winter

These photos were taken over the last couple of days by Shelby Majors during pile burning operations on the Lewis and Clark National Forest west of Augusta, Montana. He said they have been burning landing piles for the past month throughout the Benchmark Corridor that were created during a fuel reduction project started in the winter of 2016-2017.

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow


pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

pile burning Lewis Clark National Forest snow

Thanks Shelby!

Wildfire in Chatham Islands burns thousands of acres

Anticipating a wind change, 19 household along the Waitangi Wharf – Owhenga Road have been evacuated

map Chatham Islands
Screen grab from a NZDF video of a wildfire on the Chatham Islands.

A wildfire on the Chatham Islands 700 miles east of New Zealand has burned about 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres).

Principal Rural Fire Officer Craig Cottrill says two teams of five specialist rural firefighters and four incident management team specialists will fly via charter aircraft at 3pm on Saturday 3 February with fuel, equipment and supplies for a two-week deployment. Two helicopters with monsoon bucket capacity are also set to arrive on the island.

Chatham Islands Fire
Chatham Islands Fire. NZDF photo.

They will join eight Fire and Emergency volunteers, four Department of Conservation staff, and three local contractors working to contain the fire. It has started to burn into conservation land, however the true extent of the fire will be determined once additional crews are on the ground.While the fire is currently burning towards the southern coast, a wind change to the north is in the forecast overnight. Accordingly, 19 households along the Waitangi Wharf – Owhenga Road have been evacuated to a welfare center operated by the Chatham Council Civil Defence as a precaution overnight.

Chatham Islands map new zealand
The Chatham Islands are about 700 miles east of New Zealand. Google Earth.
Chatham Islands map smoke
Smoke from a wildfire on the Chatham Islands can be seen blowing to the southeast February 1, 2018. NASA.

Wildfire potential, February through May

Above: wildfire potential for February, 2018, issued February 1, 2018.

(Originally published at 1:41 p.m. MDT February 1, 2018)

On February 1 the Predictive Services section at the National Interagency Fire Center issued their Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for February through May. The data represents the cumulative forecasts of the ten Geographic Area Predictive Services Units and the National Predictive Services Unit.

If the prediction is accurate, the wildfire potential in Southern California and the Southern Plains will remain above normal for the entire four-month period and will increase in the Southwest and Northwestern Great Plains in Montana and North Dakota. The Eastern U.S. should expect normal or below normal potential.

Below are:

  • The highlights of the NIFC narrative report for the next several months;
  • NIFC’s monthly graphical outlooks;
  • NOAA’s three-month temperature and precipitation forecasts; and
  • Drought Monitor.

“The significant wildland fire potential forecasts included in this outlook represent the cumulative forecasts of the ten Geographic Area Predictive Services units and the National Predictive Services unit.

“Wildfire activity is likely to begin to increase in February as would be seasonally expected. During the early portions of the year it is typical for significant fires to begin to occur across the southern tier of the U.S. Currently it appears the highest likelihood for above normal significant wildland fire potential will be in place across portion of the southern plains and Florida and Georgia. Across the southern plains the last years precipitation totals have brought about a somewhat robust fine fuel crop, which will provide an elevated baseline of fire activity. When this elevated fuel condition is exacerbated by a period of dry and windy conditions it will provide opportunities for any ignitions to become significant fires.

“These incidents will be difficult to predict, but extra attention should be paid to this area when dry and windy conditions are forecasted. In Florida and Georgia the significant drought that led to amplified fire activity in the fall across the south has not improved. Moisture deficits in these fuel types are significant because they not only make ignition significantly more likely but they also make fires much more difficult to fight. Both conditions make the need for fire suppression resources higher. Both of these significant areas of above normal potential are likely continue through March and probably return to normal in April or May.

“At the end of the Outlook period significant fire potential across portions of Alaska will being to increase. This is also generally seasonally anticipated, however, the potential for above normal significant fire activity in the south central portion of the state is likely. Drought conditions indicate that some unusual dryness will be in place in this area as fire season begins. This will likely lead to earlier than usual ignitions and the potential for worse than usual fires. In the shorter term Hawaii is likely to see some elevated activity thanks to some unusual dryness, but this condition is expected to be short lived.

“Additionally, fire activity is expected to be below normal across western portions of Tennessee and Kentucky throughout the Outlook period.”

wildfire potential March

wildfire potential April May

3-month temperature precipitation outlook

drought monitor
Drought Monitor