A brief look — wildland firefighter smoke exposure and risk of lung and cardiovascular disease

Wildland firefighters and smoke

Here is a very brief look at the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters, and below that, a longer look, in the embedded four-page .pdf document.

By Kathleen M. Navarro, U.S. Forest Service
(currently with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Wildland firefighters are exposed to health hazards including inhaling hazardous pollutants from the combustion of live and dead vegetation (smoke), and breathing in  ash and soil dust, while working long shifts with no respiratory protection. This research brief summarizes a study estimating long-term health impacts of smoke exposure for wildland firefighters (Navarro et al. 2019). The study estimated relative risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality from existing particulate matter (PM) exposure-response relationships using a measured PM concentration from smoke and breathing rates from previous wildland firefighter studies across different exposure scenarios.

Key Findings:

  • Firefighters who worked both short and long seasons (49 days and 98 days per year, respectively) were exposed to increased lifetime doses of PM4 across all career durations (5-25 years).
  • Wildland firefighters were estimated to be at increased risk of lung cancer (8 to 43 percent) and cardiovascular disease (16 to 30 percent) mortality across all season lengths and career durations.
  • These findings suggest that wildland firefighters should reduce exposure to smoke in any way possible.

[pdf-embedder url=”https://wildfiretoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/NRFSN_ResearchBrief7_FirefighterSmokeExposure_HealthRisk_2020_final.pdf” title=”wildland Firefighter Smoke Exposure Health Risk2020″]


For more information: Smoke — and the health of firefighters

Let’s be careful out there.

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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.

9 thoughts on “A brief look — wildland firefighter smoke exposure and risk of lung and cardiovascular disease”

  1. Is it ever practical for the Highly Valued Workers in this profession to be given the land-lubber version of Scuba tanks ?

    Or something like what Piney wears in the TV show Sons of Anarchy ? He has one of those oxygen things going up his nose.

    I understand weight is a big concern. And that the result could be a little like an astronaut suit.

    I know we’re not the first to contemplate this need. Are there any existing devices that have the ability to filter out smoke (and combusted poison oak particles) so that the wearer can breathe mostly clean air ?

    Then you end up with a trade-off between the weight of oxygen storage, and the weight of batteries.

  2. This should concern all of us who have spent a lifetime exposed to the hazards and toxicity of wildland fire smoke. Something tells me there is more to this story. Thanks Bill for posting this article. DOI implemented Medical Standards probably 20 years ago (??). I can tell you my last spirometer test before I retired showed a reduced lung capacity similar to that of a 70 year old…. Should I have filed a CA2?

    This does bring into question the much needed reform to implement a heart/lung/cancer registry. CDC/NIOSH? If nothing else researchers should have access to the data from the DOI Medical Standards testing to reveal what we likely already know: hearing loss over a 20/25 career? Most likely. Reduced lung capacity/damage? Most likely. How about average life expectancy reduction due to this lifetime career exposure?

    The research and questions need to be pursued. We absolutely need to be a better job of communicating these lifetime disability/mortality risks for all temp seasonal, career and retired personnel.

  3. Finally a realization that inhalation of smoke is harmful to humans. Why put firefighters in harms way when we know that we cannot stop these fires? Weather change stops the fire. Why would we send out people to intentionally start fires and then leave them there to “monitor” that fire which exposes them to smoke?
    We need to look at the causes of fire and get that under control. Look at the most common causes of wildfire and work on that.
    Hold utility companies responsible for the massive fires that they have been starting for years!
    Get rid of campfires. How many wildfires are started by campfires? There is no constitutional amendment giving citizens the right to burn campfires.
    Climate change caused by burning fossil fuel has changed the moisture levels on our public lands. We all need to work on that.
    Stop protecting single family homes built at the urban/forrest interface and stop building there.
    Just a couple of obvious changes we need to consider as we put these lovely, young healthy firefighters in harms way. What a shame.
    And just let some of these monster fires burn themselves out.

  4. I guess they didn’t include long-term effect on lung capacity. I started on hand crews in the late 70’s and my last assignment as a crew sup. was in ’99. My smoke exposure from then on was still consistent each year at helibases and ICP’s in inversion prone places right up until 2 years ago. I had a lung capacity test a couple months ago unrelated to fire, but found out that currently I only have 48% of full capacity. No I know why I get bronchitis so easily most years.

  5. Doesn’t this seem to imply the agencies know the damaging effects of smoke inhalation, but don’t care about their workforce?

    I mean, they don’t even have a reporting system in place for smoke exposure and often Incident Management Teams camp everyone in smoke all night because it’s convenient for the management.

    There isn’t presumptive care for federal wildland firefighters, yet it’s the norm for almost all other agencies. It’s getting to the point of criminality here… Hoping for better times ahead.

    I guess it’s because our job classification (forestry technician) doesn’t mention the word ‘fire’ once and we are assumed to be out picking pine cones in the fresh air of our local forest?

    1. This seems unnecessarily antagonistic. Presumptive care would be good, but a reporting system for smoke exposure would basically be the same as your ICQS master record–pretty much every time you go to a fire you end up sucking smoke at what I would guess are not OSHA-approved levels, whether that’s being socked in under an inversion on big ones or going direct on little ones. I also don’t think camps are located in valley bottoms as close to the fire as you can safely get because it’s “convenient for management” so much as because it’s convenient for the fire suppression effort as a whole–it helps to be on a two-lane paved road so catering trucks and portajohn contractors can pass each other going opposite directions, you don’t want to be so far away that everyone’s driving 3h each way every day to get to the work site, and over a lot of the West those two perfectly reasonable criteria are generally enough to put you under a gnarly inversion.

      I’ve heard of unit-level supervisors filling out CA-1s/CA-16s for heavy smoke exposure on a roughly seasonal basis, which strikes me as a solid move on their part, and I think further reform on smoke exposure probably looks less like “put fire camp 100mi away” and more like a 3 on/4 off schedule, but I’m open to ideas.

      1. Ok so what are you saying about presumptive care? And sorry but IQCS doesn’t report smoke exposure.

        To my understanding, the federal agencies will do nothing for you if you get cancer during or after your career, so I’m not sure what you are defending there.

        As far as camp placement, you make an argument that was kind of disproven last year during COVID protocols as they spiked resources out and simply had drivers deliver meals and did radio briefings. So there isn’t an excuse anymore to get people out of inversions when they sleep unless it is just totally impossible. And either way, I’ve never heard anyone on a IMT even acknowledge the harmful effects of smoke exposure.

        As for unit level CA1/16 (should probably be CA2) what are those? Secret documents they don’t tell anyone about? I’ve never heard of the forest supervisor filing a blanket CA2 that provides smoke exposure coverage for all employees. So again, not sure what you are even saying.

        There’s a difference between managerial wishthink and the reality we face on the ground. Currently, I’m unaware of any official acknowledgement of the harmful effects of smoke exposure or any actual coverage from diseases resulting from smoke exposure

        1. “As for unit level CA1/16 (should probably be CA2) what are those? Secret documents they don’t tell anyone about? I’ve never heard of the forest supervisor filing a blanket CA2 that provides smoke exposure coverage for all employees.”

          It wasn’t a forest supervisor. Misuse of specialized terminology, my bad. I had remembered it as a module leader saying “it’s unofficial crew policy for us to sit down and do at least one exposure form for heavy smoke every season so that we have a paper trail.” I believe it was a Reddit comment.

          “sorry but IQCS doesn’t report smoke exposure.”
          Yes, I’m aware. My point is that, if we institute some kind of smoke exposure reporting mechanism, it’s probably going to get activated every time anyone goes to a fire–my best guess is that there are effectively no fires on which we don’t inhale unhealthy levels of smoke–so it would just duplicate the list of incidents on your ICQS master record.

          “camp placement”
          I dunno. Most of my 2020 spikes were right by roads in valley bottoms. Maybe if everyone was truly self-sufficient on food for 7 days people could get up on ridges, or if we had cargo drones flying in supplies or something, but if you’re sending runners to camp every morning and evening you’re still on a pretty short leash.

          1. Sure, but again, it’s all words and no action. If you get cancer on the job or off the job, there is no coverage, so to me and others who work on fires all summer long, year after year, we don’t really care about all the logistics and agency-speak.

            We just want to know that if we get cancer we will be cared for and covered by our employer who exposed us to the smoke and environmental hazards.

            So we can go round and round on this, but it comes down to action. Currently there has been no meaningful action for employees.


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