2017 North American wildfire smoke equivalent to volcano eruption

The pollution remained in the stratosphere at measurable levels for several months.

Southern California wildfires satellite view
Southern California wildfires, satellite view, December 5, 2017. NASA

The smoke and pollution created during the very active wildfire season in Canada and the United States last year was equivalent to a moderate volcano eruption according to scientists.

Below is an excerpt from an article at GeoSpace:

The overall impact of the 2017 North American fires on the stratosphere surpassed all other documented wildfire events since the beginning of stratospheric observations in the 1980s and had an effect equivalent to a volcanic eruption, according to the study’s authors.

“This event was so big and its fires were so powerful that not only did they inject material into the stratosphere, they injected enough material that the stratosphere was polluted on a hemispheric scale,” said Sergey Khaykin, an atmospheric scientist at Versailles University (UVSQ) in France, and lead author of the new study in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “The effect really was comparable to a moderate volcanic eruption.”

arizona wildfire volcano
This wildfire in Arizona in 1988 only LOOKS like a volcano.

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”

Grapes exposed to wildfire smoke may produce smoke-flavored wine

Wine grapes
Wine grapes. Photo by Fir0002.

From CFJC Today:

A new study out of the University of British Columbia Okanagan has looked at what happens to wine grapes when they are exposed to wildfire smoke.

Researchers found chemicals in the smoke can give wine an off-putting smoky flavour and aroma known as smoke taint — and those volatile phenols are absorbed quickly and remain in the grape long after the smoke has cleared.

The authors say while wine from those grapes can be smoke-flavoured, the grapes themselves taste normal, likely a result of the volatile phenols changing during the fermentation process.

Study concludes wildfire smoke causes lower infant birth weight

An economics researcher found that infants’ proximity to smoke pollution while in utero affects birth weight.

Above: Whitetail Fire in South Dakota

(Originally published at 6:17 p.m. MST January 22, 2018)

When researchers seek to determine a single or primary cause for a human health problem, they know they’re battling uphill. Our environments are complex, multifaceted, and permeated by a seemingly infinite number of factors that could shape us. Rare is the circumstance that is so ideal, at least from a researcher’s perspective, that one can sift through the noise and emerge with a definitive root of an issue.

That is, of course, unless nature is on your side — as was the case for UNLV economics professor Shawn McCoy and his University of Pittsburgh economics colleague Xiaoxi Zhao.

It’s hard to imagine anything positive coming out of wildfires. They’ve become six times more likely to occur and four times as large since the 1980s, McCoy said, due to climate and population changes. And yet for his research, which demonstrates that proximity to smoke pollution causes lower infant birthweight, wildfires proved to be a sort of equalizer.

“Wildfires are a meaningful topic to research in and of themselves, but they also help solve this causality problem that is difficult in our studies of pollution,” McCoy said. “Two features make fire pollution different from that of, say, an industrial plant: the random timing of fires and their random location, in that wind patterns on any given day drive the direction and concentration of smoke. This sets up a quasi-experimental research design wherein a fire happens randomly and by chance and randomly and naturally assigns treatment and control groups, because only a certain segment of the population will be exposed to the smoke.”

Several studies have established correlations between pollution sources and negative public health outcomes, McCoy said. However, prior research has faced difficulties demonstrating a direct causal relationship. One reason for this, according to McCoy, is the number of factors that could be involved in past research scenarios.

“Suppose we build an industrial plant,” McCoy said. “Once that plant is built, we need to think about the economics of that problem, which is that people don’t like to live next to plants. Holding everything else constant, home prices will drop in the surrounding area because of that, which could induce geographical sorting, wherein households with lower income might migrate into the areas surrounding the plant and households with higher incomes may leave. When that happens, it becomes harder to determine if changes in health outcomes occurred because of plant pollution, geographical sorting dynamics, or even something else.”

The random timing and location of wildfires mitigate these dynamics, making it ideal for McCoy and Zhao’s research. Wildfire smoke is similar to other sources of ambient air pollution; its particulate matter can be so small that it passes through the heart and lungs, disrupts fetal nutrition, and slows fetal growth. Within this framework, birthweight becomes a useful metric to track because of its link to short-term outcomes, such as one-year mortality rates, as well as long-term outcomes such as educational attainment and earnings, McCoy said.

McCoy and Zhao leveraged geographic information systems (mapping software) to identify ignition sources and smoke paths and plotted the home addresses of infants born during a time that would place them in the smoke’s path while in utero. They then compared the birthweight of those infants to a control group outside of the smoke’s path.

The researchers’ results indicate that wildfire smoke leads to a 4 to 6 percent reduction in birthweight, and these effects are most pronounced among mothers exposed to smoke during the second or the third trimesters of pregnancy. They also found that these effects attenuate (or diminish) with respect to distance to a wildfire, becoming ineffectual three miles and further from the burn source. In contrast, the researchers found that even if infants had been close to a wildfire while in utero, there was no statistically significant effect on their birthweight if they were outside the smoke’s path.

“One really neat thing about this research is that I can do more than tell you what the effect of being exposed to the smoke is or not,” McCoy said. “I can tell you how that effect varies based on where an infant is relative to the source of pollution. Beyond that, we now have the evidence that reinforces earlier findings on the effects of ambient pollution at large and can say that these effects are very likely real, not just loosely correlated or tied up with other economic issues like household migration dynamics.”

McCoy’s hope is that this research will help inform policymakers of the potential economic and health consequences of wildfires, the magnitude of this type of disaster, and the mechanism behind wildfires — all of which enable people to better target the problem.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that homeowners don’t fully acknowledge the risks associated with natural disasters — in particular, the risks associated with wildfire,” McCoy said. “One way to address this problem is to inform the public of risks through information-based regulation, such as posting billboards of people standing on cars during floods to discourage them from attempting to drive through inundated areas in the future. The idea is, if you give people this information, it can affect how they evaluate disaster risks, and it will likely have a spillover effect in terms of how they manage those risks.” That being said, McCoy noted that a one-time exposure to this type of information likely won’t be enough to have a lasting impact, so regulators should share this type of messaging often.

McCoy and Zhao’s research findings have been detailed in their article “Wildfire and Infant Health: A Geo-Spatial Approach to Estimating the Health Impacts of Ambient Air Pollution and In-Utero Stress,” currently under review by a top industry journal.

Source: provided by University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Original written by Sara Gorgon. University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). “Exposure to wildfire smoke in utero lowers birthweight.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 December 2017.

Smoke from Thomas Fire affects air quality in California

Above: Wildfire smoke forecast for 6 p.m. PST December 10, 2017.

(Originally published at 3:30 p.m. PST December 10, 2017)

The Thomas Fire is having a significant effect on the air quality in California. Some areas downwind of the fire to the northwest had “unhealthy” conditions at 2 p.m. Sunday, including Santa Barbara and Goleta. Forecasts show that smoke and ash will continue to affect the southern part of Santa Barbara County for the next several days. The Santa Ynez Valley and the northern parts of the County will see increasing impacts.

Thomas Fire smoke air quality
Satellite photo showing smoke from the Thomas Fire December 10, 2017.
Thomas Fire smoke air quality
Air quality at 2 p.m. PST December 10.
Thomas Fire smoke air quality
Air Quality in Santa Barbara County at 2 p.m. PST December 12, 2017.

Fascinating animation of satellite imagery

What do you find MOST interesting about this video?

Above: screen grab from the NASA video. This image is from August 31, 2017.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has put together an incredible animation that make it possible to track smoke, dust from Africa, and sea salt. “Sea salt?” you’re thinking? Yes, winds over the oceans pick up salt which becomes visible to sensors on the satellites making it possible to visualize wind patterns, including hurricanes, over the vast expanses of the oceans.

This visualization uses data from NASA satellites, combined with mathematical models in a computer simulation allow scientists to study the physical processes in our atmosphere.

I watched this five times seeing something different with each viewing. So what are you going to watch? Wildfire smoke in Canada? Smoke in Portugal? Smoke in the western U.S.? Smoke in the Southeast? Or dust coming from Africa? Or the wind patterns and hurricanes in the Atlantic? Or the smoke that begins on October 9 northeast of San Francisco generated from the destruction of thousands of homes? Or smoke from fires in Italy?

If you look VERY carefully, you will be able to see a little smoke from something very rare — a wildfire in Greenland, near the coast on the southwest side of the island intermittently between August 2 and 15. (More info about the fire in Greenland.)

I suggest clicking on the full-screen button at the lower right after you start the video. If you’re having trouble viewing it, you can also see it on YouTube.