Study found hazardous air quality conditions at fire camps in Oregon and California

Smoke exposure levels at the Creek Fire ranged from hazardous to unhealthy for 30 days

(From Bill: Wildland firefighters and people who live in areas where long-term fires are common, such as Northern California and the Northwest, know that smoke can persist for days or weeks and can cause or aggravate respiratory and other medical issues. But knowing it exists and having peer reviewed quantifiable data proving it is hazardous to health, are two different things. Science like this could lead to changes that may benefit firefighters and the general public.)


In September and October the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deployed two staff members to serve as air resource advisors at wildfires in Oregon and California.

Air resource advisors were fully integrated into the wildfire incident management teams to provide insights into understanding and predicting smoke exposure levels. The individuals interacted with stakeholders, including air quality regulators, fire personnel, public health practitioners, and community residents. A primary aspect of this engagement was to forecast smoke levels for areas immediately affected by fires and generate a daily smoke outlook to keep stakeholders informed about prevailing smoke levels. 2020 is the first year during which the CDC worked with the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and deployed staff members as air resource advisors for wildfire incidents.

From August 31 to September 14, 2020, one CDC staff member supported wildfires in central Oregon’s Cascade Range east of Sisters, which included the Beachie Creek, Holiday Farm, Lionshead, and Riverside fires. Strong east winds across the Cascade Mountains resulted in more than 560,000 acres of fire growth from September 7 through 10.

satellite photo fires smoke Washington, Oregon, and California
GOES-17 photo of smoke from wildfires in Washington, Oregon, and California at 5:56 p.m. PDT Sept. 8, 2020. The photo was taken during a very strong wind event.

Another CDC staff member was deployed to the Creek Fire from September 20 to October 5, 2020. This fire near North Fork, California started September 4 and grew to 193,000 acres during its first week; as of December 3, 2020, the fire had burned 379,895 acres.

Air quality study, fire camps, 2020
Abbreviation: PM2.5 = particles with aerodynamic diameters ≤2.5 μm.
       * Sensitive groups include persons aged ≤18 years; adults aged ≥65 years; pregnant women; persons with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease, including asthma and diabetes; outdoor workers; persons experiencing homelessness, and those with limited access to medical care. (https://www.cdc.gov/air/wildfire-smoke/default.htm).
       † Fire camps typically offer logistical support to the wildfire suppression operation by providing firefighters and incident personnel sleeping locations (camping), morning and evening meals, workspaces, and administrative services.
       § The monitoring instrument in North Fork, California, recorded errors and did not report data during September 12–15, 2020.
       ¶ Start date of Creek Fire in California was September 4. Start dates of fires in Oregon were as follows. Lionshead was August 16; Beachie Creek was August 16; Holiday Farm was September 7; Riverside was September 8.

During these two deployments, several public health concerns came to light. Of note, although smoke from wildfires drifted long distances and affected downwind communities, the brunt of poor air quality was observed in communities adjacent to wildfire incidents. For example, communities near the fires in California and Oregon experienced high concentrations of PM2.5, as measured by air quality monitors, resulting in “Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” conditions, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index.

Fire personnel who camped and rested between work shifts at nearby fire camps (North Fork, California and Sisters, Oregon) were also exposed to poor air quality levels. These fire camp exposures contribute to higher overall cumulative smoke exposure and, along with other occupational risk factors such as fatigue and stress, could limit recovery that is much needed for fire personnel while away from the active fire perimeter. In addition, environmental hazards such as extreme heat and higher concentrations of ambient carbon monoxide were prevalent during days with heavy smoke and after extreme fire growth days. These hazards added a layer of complexity to fire response efforts and might have limited fire personnel recovery between work shifts.


From: Navarro K, Vaidyanathan A.  — Notes from the Field: Understanding Smoke Exposure in Communities and Fire Camps Affected by Wildfires— California and Oregon, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1873–1875. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6949a4

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bob.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

13 thoughts on “Study found hazardous air quality conditions at fire camps in Oregon and California”

  1. For a (short) moment I thought this might be about the Klamath River valley fire camps in California ‘87. But I suppose calling that ‘87 siege air quality ‘hazardous’ is both a given and understated.

    JAOT (just another old timer)

  2. The Klamath was the worst I ever experienced back then and multiple times after that, always dreaded Happy Camp.

    1. 87′ and 08′ in Nor Cal were certainly worse than I’ve seen in 50 seasons. The Creek was an incredible inferno but the inversions on the KNF and
      SHF out pase the central Sierra.

  3. If wildfires can’t be controlled until the weather changes perhaps these workers should not be put in harms way before they can even do anything to control the fires.
    We also need to limit human access to forests during the worst weather conditions as almost all fires are human caused.

  4. I was in Happy Camp in ’87 for 3 weeks. It was like living in a wood stove minus the heat. I still have a chronic cough from the smoke there. the only time the air was clear was if we got high enough to be out of the inversion. I am glad there are still some of us left that remember The Siege of ’87.

  5. Maybe we should have a reunion for all of us “happy camp 87″ survivors..lol….
    Have been back a couple of times since, but agree, it was pretty gnarly in 87..

    12” of powdered dirt on those Nevada 2 tracks ain’t a lot of fun as well…

    Anyway you cut it…..the job hasn’t been good for our lungs…and probably our overall health…..wonder if we will ever see a comprehensive study that drills down on all this ???

  6. Was in Happy Camp in 87 for almost a month. With the inversion there were days you couldn’t see 40′ feet.
    Developed a nasty lung infection towards the end. Went to the doctor after I got back home. The doc asked if I smoked after looking at the chest x-ray. Told him only wildfire smoke.

    When conditions set up like they were in Happy Camp, Teams need to look at being able to move the camp to a better air quality location. Remember crews working the higher elevations wanted to spike camp out. The only problem was it was so smoked in that air resources could not be used to ferry in supplies.

    Ahh The good old days.

    1. Glad I had overhead that was smart enough to stay out of Camps. Sleep high and avoid the disgusting creatures that inhabit camps. Hopefully Covid has killed fire camps for good.

  7. I was at Happy Camp and Cecilville. Had to wrap up in Visqueen because they ran out of paper sleeping bags. They had us in a quarantined sleep area the last few days because we had the “cough”. Still sent us out on the line though.

  8. After reading the title of this article, its contents, and the 11 comments that followed; the first thing that came to my mind was its no wonder at all that the feds wont recognize wildland firefighters for the position nor attempt to make it a full time job and hire more people full time. Just the short and long term healthcare repercussions alone of this job probably keep their attorneys awake at night. I myself have spent time at Happy Camp (less the paper sleeping bags) so I can relate somewhat to those who commented also with fire time there.
    This keeps coming back to all parties in the proverbial spot of “having their cake and eating it too”. Sure the overhead on every fire needs to be taking care of their folks to the best of their ability. But at the same time we all signed up knowing the risks and the part where you only get so many hours in a season….Thats the whole reason for a seasonal job…It was never meant to be a career. To assume otherwise is at your own peril not the governments. Maybe its also time more people realize that.
    I agree with the comment about hopefully this is an end to crusty fire camps. They are besides a health hazard a true waste of resources and money all in the name of giving people a “ job” for the summer

    1. Maybe at one time it could have been a part time gig but in California especially the fires are year round now. Crews even in North Ops can be doing fuels work starting in January and that quickly rolls into the summer season and then off forest assignments to fires in Socal all the way through December. Meanwhile in Socal they got high fire risk locally most of the year and don’t really have to travel anywhere to find a fire. The days of a six month season are over.

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