Cancer and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

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.

wildfire firefighter smoke
A firefighter works in the smoke on the Water Tower Fire in Hot Springs, SD March 1, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

There is no registry that tracks their exposure or health during and after their careers. Another bill was introduced in Washington this month to create a registry, but the one introduced a year ago died a quick death, and this newest one has far fewer co-sponsors and so far looks unlikely to pass.

Washington Post writes about firefighters and cancer

Above: Members of a hotshot crew work in smoke on the Cold Brook Prescribed Fire, October 23, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Very slow progress is being made toward recognizing the long term health risks of firefighters and more importantly, taking action to mitigate the effects.

This month another bill was introduced that would establish a national cancer registry for firefighters diagnosed with cancer, an occupational hazard that many organizations recognize as a presumptive disease in the profession. The bill is titled Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2017. A similar bill with 118 co-sponsors died a quick death in 2016, so there is little hope that this one will fare much better. This newest one has 12 co-sponsors as of today.

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.”

Nevada BLM engine crew
A Nevada BLM engine crew in 2016. Inciweb photo. The faces were blurred by Wildfire Today.

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:

Firefighter Close Calls Tweet

And below is a better photo of the helmet:
Cairns dirty helmet firefighter

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.

firefighters, cancer,
Screenshot from Jason Curtis’ film about San Diego firefighters and the occurrence of cancer.

Information about the hazards of wood smoke:

Smoke from controlled burn causes two accidents on Kansas highway

Osage smoke highway accident controlled burn
Scene of two accidents on Highway 56 in Kansas, February 18. The photo was taken after visibility had improved somewhat. Photo courtesy of Kansas State Firefighters Association.

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.

Satellite photo shows virtually no wildfire smoke in southern states

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.

Here is an example of a satellite photo that showed large amounts of wildfire smoke on November 10, 2016.

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.

For the most current information about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Gatlinburg, see our articles tagged “Chimney 2 Fire”.

Five of the most active wildfires in the South

Above: Three fires were generating the smoke detected by a satellite on November 27: Rock Mountain, Camp Branch, and Pinnacle Mountain Fires.

The wildfire activity in the southern states has slowed a bit over the last few days. The day before Thanksgiving there were about 4,100 personnel assigned to fires in the area. By Saturday that number had decreased to 3,400.

The smoke generated by fires that has plagued residents for weeks has also diminished considerably. Today’s satellite photo, above, only shows three fires that are creating enough smoke to be seen from hundreds of miles overhead. These are the Rock Mountain (Georgia and North Carolina), Camp Branch (North Carolina), and Pinnacle Mountain Fires (South Carolina).

Just five fires in the Southern Geographic Area reported size increases on Saturday — a major change from recent weeks.

Rock Mountain Fire

The Rock Mountain Fire in Georgia and North Carolina grew by 2,578 acres in the last 48 hours and now has covered 20,647 acres, which is considered huge in this part of the country. It has spread to within 4 miles of Otto, NC and 4 miles of Dillard, GA. The fire was mapped Saturday by Colorado’s MultiMission Aircraft. Firefighters reported active surface spread in hardwood leaf litter in all directions, aspects and elevations on Saturday. Where it was not impacted by suppression it spread for half a mile. About 130 structures are threatened.

Camp Branch Fire

The 1,483-acre Camp Branch Fire is 9 miles west of Franklin, NC, an increase of 120 acres over the previous report. About 113 personnel are assigned to this fire which currently threatens 140 structures. On Saturday firefighters successfully conducted burnout operations on the northwest and southeast sides.

Pinnacle Mountain Fire

The Pinnacle Mountain Fire in Table Rock State Park added 217 acres Saturday to bring the total up to 9,147 acres. It is in northwest South Carolina 9 miles south of Brevard, North Carolina. The incident management team reports that 255 personnel are assigned and 1,133 structures are threatened. A burnout operation on Saturday brought the perimeter to the containment lines on the west and north sides of the fire.

map Rock Mountain, Camp Branch, and Pinnacle Mountain Fires
Map showing the perimeters of the Rock Mountain, Camp Branch, and Pinnacle Mountain Fires.

OTHER FIRES

Clear Creek Fire

The Clear Creek Fire is 7 miles northwest of Marion, NC. I has burned 2,986 acres, an increase of 363 acres. About 352 structures are reported to be threatened. The fire is staffed by 489 personnel.

Mount Pleasant Fire

The Mount Pleasant Fire, 9 miles west of Buena Vista, Virginia has blackened 11,200 acres, an increase of 200. High humidity Friday night aided suppression efforts, but that was followed by strong winds on Saturday. Area road and trail closures, including part of the Appalachian Trail, are in effect. The fire has burned across the Appalachian Trail between Road 507 and Cow Camp Gap. The increase in acreage was the result of a large burnout operation on Saturday.

For the latest articles at Wildfire Today about how smoke from the wildfires is affecting various locations in the South, check out the articles tagged “smoke”.

Firefighters battling two fires in central Virginia

Above: Smoke from the Eades Hollow and Mount Pleasant Fires can be seen in a satellite photo taken Wednesday afternoon, November 23, 2016.

(Originally published at 5:55 p.m. ET November 23, 2016)

Two wildfires in central Virginia were very active on Wednesday, creating smoke that drifted northeast toward Washington, DC.

The Mount Pleasant Fire has burned 4,400 acres since it started November 19 10 miles northwest of Amherst, Virginia on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests within the Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area. Wednesday morning 122 personnel were assigned, plus engines, dozers, three aircraft, and other resources that are en route. On Tuesday the fire grew by 1,689 acres. A Type 3 Incident Management Team from the Montana Department of Natural Resources has assumed command of the fire.

Mt. Pleasant Fire
Mt. Pleasant Fire. InciWeb photo.

The Eades Hollow Fire 16 miles northeast of Amherst has blackened 922 acres, growing by 422 acres on Tuesday.

Continue reading “Firefighters battling two fires in central Virginia”