Residents in the Northern and Central Plains have been experiencing vegetation fire smoke today. Much of it has come from agricultural or prescribed burning in Missouri and the Flint Hills of Kansas. The map above, an experimental product from NOAA’s Earth Central Research Laboratory, shows the estimate of where the smoke would be at 8 p.m. MDT on April 13.
The map below shows the locations of fires, wild or prescribed, and AirNow’s estimate of a smoke plume.
The Environmental Protection Agency has announced an initiative to develop a new low-cost system that could monitor air quality affected by smoke from wildland fires. The existing hardware is large, cumbersome, and expensive, thereby limiting the number of monitoring stations and the data that is available to help officials provide appropriate strategies to minimize smoke exposure.
Below is an excerpt from the EPA’s announcement about what they call the Wildland Fire Sensors Challenge. The three graphics were part of the agency’s news release.
Today, emerging technologies – including miniaturized direct-reading sensors, compact/powerful microprocessors, and wireless data communications – offer the opportunity to develop new systems to quickly gather and communicate air pollution data.
Wild fires are increasingly common events that produce significant air pollution, posing health risks to first responders, residents in nearby areas, and downwind communities. Also, wild fires are increasing in frequency and intensity, and the fire season is growing longer. Prescribed fires, which are used to manage ecosystems or reduce risk of wild fires, are typically managed to minimize downwind impacts on populated areas; however, people in close proximity may still be exposed to smoke. The description “wildland fires” refers to both wild and prescribed fires.
This challenge seeks a field-ready prototype system capable of measuring constituents of smoke, including particulates, carbon monoxide, ozone, and carbon dioxide, over the wide range of levels expected during wildland fires. The prototype system should be accurate, light-weight, easy to operate, and capable of wireless data transmission, so that first responders and nearby communities have access to timely information about local air quality conditions during wildland fire events.
The EPA is partnering with several agencies to develop this equipment: Forest Service, National Park Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, with the current Administration’s intended massive cutbacks to the EPA and even scattered calls to eliminate the agency, finding the money and staff to bring this idea to fruition is anything but a slam dunk.
Above: Screenshot from Jason Curtis’ film about San Diego firefighters and the occurrence of cancer.
The San Diego Fireman’s Relief Association has produced a short 8-minute documentary about the occurrence of cancer within the membership of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, interviewing 15 firefighters who talked about their job and the disease. Many of them looked back knowing what they know now, and wished they had done some things differently.
(UPDATE March 2, 2017: the film was available at the website of the company hired to make the film, but it has been removed until the cancer awareness program associated with it has been rolled out. It may be available again on YouTube or another site in two to three months, according to Robert Bunsold, a board member of the Relief Association.)
The San Diego FD primarily deals with structure fires. The mix of by-products of combustion they are exposed to is different from what a wildland firefighter works in, but unfortunately we don’t know what the significance of that difference is, if any. There are carcinogens in wood smoke but much work still needs to be done to determine the short and long-term effects on wildland firefighters.
Structural firefighters generally wear breathing apparatus (BA) when they are making an interior attack on a structure, and often when they are on the exterior. But wildland firefighters never wear BAs on a vegetation fire because it is not practical. They can be working on a fire miles from their truck for up to 16 hours, but the air bottles only last for minutes.
Some wildland firefighters wear a bandana or dust mask over their nose and mouth, thinking, incorrectly, that they provide some level of protection from particulates. And they have no effect on carbon monoxide and other dangerous gasses.
The smallest and most dangerous particulates in vegetation fire smoke are so small that if one was near an 8-foot high ceiling in a room with perfectly still air, it would take 8 hours for it to fall to the floor. These particles can easily go through a bandana or a cheap mask and make their way to the lungs. Much more expensive respirators with certain types of replaceable filters could provide better air, but they are hot to wear and create too much resistance as the air is forced through the apparatus.
On Friday the Washington Post published an in-depth look at the topic in an article titled, Firefighters and cancer: Is a risky job even riskier? The authors interviewed several firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer and laid out some of the health-related risks of the job.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the final results of what is currently the largest study of cancer risk among career firefighters ever conducted in the United States. The study of about 30,000 firefighters over a 60-year span showed that compared with the general population, firefighters on average are at higher risk for certain kinds of cancer — mainly oral, digestive, respiratory, genital and urinary cancers.
It is important to provide treatment to firefighters that have been injured on the job, including those suffering from diseases that were likely caused by working in a hazardous environment.
It is also important to take steps to reduce the hazard in the first place. For wildland firefighters who don’t have the luxury of breathing air carried in a bottle on their back, avoiding cancer-causing smoke can be difficult. But in some cases supervisors can minimize the number of firefighters that are forced to work in heavy smoke, or rotate them into areas where there is less. A crew can have a small carbon monoxide detector to identify excessive exposure to the dangerous gas, which on a fire would also be associated with the presence of particulates and carcinogens.
Here is another quote from the Washington Post article:
“Smoke on your gear and smoke on your helmet used to be a sign that you’re an experienced firefighter,” said Lt. Sarah Marchegiani of the Arlington County Fire Department. “But now people just recognize it’s a hazard and not worth it.”
An issue that always creates some controversy on Wildfire Today is the fact that some firefighters feel that refusing to change out of very dirty Nomex even when clean clothes or a laundry service are available proves to their colleagues that they are cool, or experienced, or skilled, or manly. The fact is, the contaminants that accumulate on clothing, personal protective equipment, and line gear are dangerous. Having it in contact with your skin can cause it to be absorbed into the body. If the firefighter’s environment is warm their pores will open which allows chemicals to be absorbed even more quickly. Everybody that is knowledgeable about the issue agrees. Contaminants can even build up to the point where the fire resistance of the fabric is compromised, especially if it includes chainsaw oil or the residue of drip torch fuel.
Firefighter Close Calls reports on injuries and accidents in the fire world and has written about the hazards of contaminated fire gear. Here is an example from earlier this week:
And below is a better photo of the helmet:
The fact that a major manufacturer of personal protective equipment for firefighters uses gear in their advertising that is probably contaminated with carcinogens, is an indicator of the difficulty in solving this health-related problem.
Smoke from a controlled burn on February 18 caused two accidents on Highway 56 in Kansas two miles east of the Osage-Lyon county line. The series of accidents began when a truck was hit from behind when it slowed as it entered the smoke and the vehicle in front of it also slowed down.
The second accident happened when other vehicles stopped in the smoke to help those in the first accident. One driver was parked partially in the roadway when she was hit by another vehicle which then kept moving and hit two pedestrians who were helping one of the drivers in the first accident. After injuring the pedestrians the vehicle then hit another car.
The Osage County Sheriff’s Office that provided the above information reported that three people were transported to hospitals and five vehicles were damaged.
Dan Romine, Chief of Osage County Fire District #2, said the smoke across the highway was a lot worse than shown in the photo above when his fire department first arrived on scene.
Above: Thursday’s satellite photo shows no large quantities of smoke from wildfires in the southern states. NASA/Wildfire Today.
Thanks to the soaking rains over the last three days the satellite photo taken Thursday shows no large concentrations of smoke from wildfires in the southern states. Of course this photo was taken from hundreds of miles overhead and would not be capable of detecting smoking logs, stump holes, and the smouldering remains of burned structures at Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
And it does not mean the fires are out. Firefighters may still need to construct firelines around the perimeters of the fires and suppress still-burning materials that are near the fire’s edge.
The very dry soils and vegetation desiccated by the two-month drought will quickly soak up some of the precipitation making it less effective in suppressing a fire than it would have been if the weather had been closer to normal in recent months.
The Southern Area Coordination Center reported Thursday morning only two fires that were still spreading — the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Gatlinburg, TN (+1,455 acres) and the Camp Branch Fire 9 miles west of Franklin, NC (+212 acres).
Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Gatlinburg
There are no major changes in the information provided by officials about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. The estimated number of structures burned remains at 700 and they are still reporting 7 confirmed fatalities. The size is 17,108 acres.
A mandatory evacuation is still in effect for most of the City of Gatlinburg.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is closed from the Gatlinburg entrance along Highway 441 to Smokemont, near Cherokee, North Carolina. Cades Cove and Oconoluftee Visitor Centers reopened Thursday.
The incident management team disclosed information about another fire they are managing east of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. The name of this fire is unclear, but it is reported to be in the Cobbly Nob area.