Forests accused of being "gross polluters"

An editorial in the Redding Searchlight complains that wood stoves and industry are not the only sources of air pollution and that the government should do a lot more to prevent the massive amount of smoke from large fires.

Our view: The government shouldn’t ignore pollution from the public forests.

We think we have this straight.

If residents’ fireplaces and woodstoves fill the air with schmutz, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lays down the law, requiring no-burn days and other tough rules to keep the region in compliance with federal air-quality standards.

But if a wildfire does the same thing – indeed, even if it pushes pollution measurements off the charts for weeks – it’s something that “just happens.”

Funny, to the kids at soccer practice or the gardeners weeding their tomato patch, the smoke does the same harm.

Yet the EPA doesn’t take wildfire smoke seriously as a health threat, granting exemptions to counties that endure a summertime brown cloud blowing from neighboring forests on the theory that we can’t really control the blazes.

Nonsense.

While last summer’s wave of lightning-sparked fires was one for the record books, the flames were remarkable only for their scope. In California, summer fires are as predictable as sunny 100-degree days. And while we can’t – and, biologists say, shouldn’t – stop all of them, we do know how to reduce the risk that those fires will blow out of control.

In the meantime, though, north state counties will seek waivers from the EPA so the fires won’t mar our otherwise fine air-quality record. Shasta and surrounding counties meet strict new rules for fine dust, a relatively rare feat in California.

As a bureaucratic imperative, that makes sense. Residents shouldn’t be forced to cure a problem that’s not of their making.

But maybe we’d be better off if we treated the forests as the gross polluters they’ve become. If federal management is part of the problem, the federal government should take responsibility for its share – just as Knauf Insulation or the drivers of diesel trucks must.

Wildfire smoke on the scale we’ve seen recently isn’t something that “just happens.” It’s the product of a paralyzing thicket of federal laws, along with the long-term failure to invest in the fuel management that the government’s own plans call for.

If the federal government were to commit the cash to seriously reduce wildfire risks in Northern California’s public forests, we’d all breathe easier each summer in more ways than one.

Smoke from burn piles closes Ca. Highway 44

On Wednesday, smoke from burn piles mixed with fog to reduce the visibility to the point that Highway 44 between Redding, CA and Reno, NV had to be closed between 4:00 and 11:30 a.m. The 18 piles, each about 1/2 acre in size, were created by workers clearing a firebreak near Bogard, according to a spokesman from the Lassen National Forest. On a typical day, about 1,600 vehicles travel that section of Highway 44 near the Shasta County line.

Florida: Smoke from fire causes accidents, one fatality

Smoke from a 5-acre brush fire reduced the visibility on a road near Palatka, Florida to 20-30 feet, causing a multi-car accident and one fatality, 88-year old Ellis Barnes.

Barnes apparently missed a driveway in the smoke and drove his truck into a ditch. The trailer he was pulling blocked the southbound lane of County Road 315, about three miles north of State Road 100.

A small two-door hatchback, driven by 51-year-old Ellen Wilder of Keystone Heights, collided with the trailer.

While Barnes was on the phone with E911, a small pickup stopped just short of the hatchback.

A 1-ton dual-rear wheeled truck then struck the small pick-up, pushing it into the hatchback, which in turn hit the trailer again.

The force of the crash caused the small pickup to spin counter-clockwise and pin Barnes between it and his own truck.

New study on how smoke from wildland fire affects the public

Photo by Bill Gabbert

It was just on November 21 that Wildfire Today covered a new study about the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters. Now another new study on the emissions from wildland fires provides more data on the particulates produced by the fires and how they affect the public. Some of the findings include:

The health threat to city dwellers posed by Southern California wildfires like those of November 2008 may have been underestimated by officials.

Detailed particulate analysis of the smoke produced by previous California wild fires indicates that the composition posed more serious potential threats to health than is generally realized, according to a new paper analyzing particulate matter (PM) from wildfires in Southern California.

The paper, entitled “Physicochemical and Toxicological Profile of Particulate Matter (PM) in Los Angeles during the October 2007 Southern California Wildfires,” will appear in Environmental Science and Technology. It confirms earlier studies by air polllution specialist Constantinos Sioutas of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, who is also co-director of the Southern California Particle Center.

For the study Sioutas and colleagues from USC, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and RIVM (the National Institute of Health and the Environment of the Netherlands) analyzed the particular matter gathered during the fall 2007 blazes.

“Fire emissions produce a significantly larger aerosol in size than typically seen in urban environments during periods affected by traffic sources, which emit mostly ultrafine particles,” Sioutas said.

“Staying indoors may not provide protection from smoke particles in the absence of air conditioning or the ability to recirculate filtered indoor air. This is because the fire particles can penetrate indoor structures more readily than particles from vehicular emissions.”

According to Sioutas, the fires produce a dangerous mix. “The chemical composition of particles during the fire episodes is different than that during ‘normal’ days impacted by traffic sources.

The ability of the particulates to penetrate structures, even if windows are closed, and their potential ability to be absorbed by human tissues are a matter of concern. “More aggressive measures to avoid smoke seem to deserve study, including distribution of masks and evacuation to air conditioned environments, and closure of non-smoke secured schools,” said Sioutas, who holds the school’s Fred Champion Professorship of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

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The study’s recommendation about the “distribution of masks” is questionable, in light of other data reported by Wildfire Today. If they are referring to the cheap, disposable dust masks, the information we have seen (below) indicates that they cannot remove the small particulates in wildland fire smoke.

Click on the image above to see a larger version.

New study: wildland firefighters and smoke

There have been a number of reports about the effects of smoke on firefighters. Now there is a new one by the Institut de recherché Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST).

Here is an excerpt from the report’s abstract:

The substances of greatest concern are carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, acrolein, and respirable and inhalable particles. A second group of concern, but present at proportionally lower concentrations, includes benzene, carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides, PAH, ammonia, and furfural. A third group of concern, but present at proportionally lower concentrations again, includes acetaldehyde, 1,3-butadiene, methane, methanol, styrene, acetonitrile, propionaldehyde, toluene, methyl bromide, methylethylketone, acetone, methyl chloride, xylenes, phenol, tetrahydrofuran, methyl iodide, and mercury. Data suggests that if wildland firefighters are exposed to 25 ppm of carbon monoxide (below the permissible exposure value), they may be overexposed to formaldehyde, acrolein, PAH (benzo[a]pyrene), and respirable particles.

The U.S. National Fire Protection Association has recently announced that it is proceeding with the development of a new wildland firefighting respiratory protection Standard, but it will be some time still before respirators certified for wildland firefighting will become available.

If administrative controls are unsuccessful in reducing exposures to acceptable levels, wildland firefighters should be provided with air purifying respirators for formaldehyde, respirable particulate matter, organic vapours and acids, acrolein, and PAH. However, wildland firefighters should be cautioned that at high work levels the effectiveness and duration of air purifying cartridges is unknown. There is also a concern that firefighters using air purifying respirators may unknowingly expose themselves to higher levels of contaminants not removed by their respirator than they would otherwise. Until a respirator is developed for wildland firefighting that effectively removes carbon monoxide, air purifying respirators should be used in conjunction with a carbon monoxide alarm.

Like “a mosquito through an open door”.

Firefighters, especially new ones, frequently ask if bandannas over the face will protect them from smoke. The answer is hell no.

“Respirable smoke particles, gases, and vapours would pass through a bandanna as readily as a mosquito thorugh an open door.”

Click on the image above to see a larger version.

In fact, even respirators, as inconvenient as they are, will not do the job according to the report.

None of the filtering respirators remove carbon monoxide (CO). All of the currently available respirators have serious shortcomings for use in a wildland fire situation. Even if they were effective, some wildland firefighters are understandably reluctant to accept negative pressure air purifying face masks for use at high work levels for long periods of time.

A full face mask is generally more comfortable than a half-face mask and it provides full eye protection. Full eye protection is necessary the case of contaminants exceeding the threshold limit value where the threshold limit value is based on irritant effects.

Since the contaminants having warning properties such as odour or irritant effects are removed by air purifying respirators, there is a legitimate concern that firefighters wearing such respirators might unknowingly expose themselves to higher levels of toxic contaminants not removed by the respirator than they would otherwise. This could easily result in over exposure to carbon monoxide and lead to serious, perhaps deadly, consequences. To avoid this, a carbon monoxide monitor with alarm should be used in conjunction with air purifying respirators used when fighting wildland fires.

So, forget about the bandanna, and throw away that $84 piece of crap Hot Shield mask that is advertised to have the “ benefit of blocking & reducing the inhalation of smoke & ash particulate”. These smoke particulates are so small, that if one were released near the ceiling in a room with calm air, it would take eight hours to fall to the floor.

The sad truth is, in 2008 there is no practical way to protect wildland firefighters from the byproducts of combustion. Maybe the new 8-pound SCBA being developed will lead to something that could benefit wildland firefighters. Using this new technology, perhaps a 15-pound unit would give you an hour’s worth of air? This might help for initial attack, but for the hot shot crew on the line for 16 hours, sorry, you’re out of luck.

Cancer risk for firefighters

We are not aware of any specific study that has been completed on the occurrence of cancer among wildland firefighters, but there is enough data out there about structural firefighters that make this a major concern.  Wildfire Today has covered this before, but the Spokane Spokesman-Review has a new disturbing article about a local cancer cluster.  Here is an excerpt.

Doug Bacon missed the funeral of a fellow Spokane firefighter because the 59-year-old was in treatment for throat cancer – the same illness that had just killed his friend and co-worker.
A third Spokane firefighter who joined the department with Bacon in the 1970s also has been diagnosed with throat cancer.
“It’s to the point we’re trying to figure out which fire we were all on together,” said Bacon, who survived his cancer and returned to the job in mid-2006. “I’ve got attitude. I fought it.”
Firefighters are at least twice as likely to get cancer as the average person because of exposure to toxins emitted in fires, such as benzene, asbestos and cyanide, studies say. More firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer in the past two years than in the previous 10 years, according to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and recent studies.
When Bacon was diagnosed with cancer in January 2006, he said he just looked at the doctor and said: “You’re kidding me.” He was unaware at the time that firefighters were more susceptible to the disease. Now, he’s constantly warning young firefighters of the dangers and telling them to keep their masks on – even after the fire’s out.
During July, Spokane area firefighters fought blazes nearly every day, including the massive Valley View wildfire, and two three-alarm fires – The Ugly Duck and Joel building.
Despite wearing protective gear, some walked away from those blazes hacking and coughing. Authorities say asbestos – a cancer-causing agent often found in old building materials – was found in the Joel building.
Research is still being done to determine what level of exposure leads to cancer in firefighters, officials say. Meanwhile, the illness has become a primary concern for the profession.
“Finally we are taking our blinders off when it comes to cancer,” said Michael Dubron, founder and president of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. Dubron is a cancer survivor and Los Angles firefighter. “With our organization, we are trying to be proactive, such as reducing unnecessary exposure. No longer is it cool to run around with soot-covered uniforms and equipment.”
The soot contains many of the same toxins firefighters are exposed to during a blaze, officials say.
Something Wildfire Today wrote on May 28 is worth repeating:
In Canada, the British Columbia government recognizes as an occupational hazard for firefighters the following diseases:
  • testicular cancer
  • lung cancer in non-smokers
  • brain cancer
  • bladder cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • ureter cancer
  • colorectal cancer
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • leukemia
This means that full-time, volunteer, part-time, and paid on-call firefighters suffering from the diseases will qualify for worker’s compensation and benefits, without having to prove individually that the diseases are linked to their jobs.
There is not a lot that wildland firefighters can do to avoid breathing the byproducts of combustion.  There is no such thing as a breathing apparatus containing clean air that can be carried for a 16-hour shift.
The various filter masks that are sometimes bought by wildland firefighters do nothing except filter out some of the larger particles, sticks, and rocks.  The microscopic smoke particulates are so small, that if one were near the ceiling in a room with still air, it would take about eight hours to fall to the floor.  And the masks do nothing to remove the various toxic gasses and other contaminates.
We need to establish a system to track the long term health and cancer occurence within the wildland firefighter community.