Wildfire news, October 6, 2012

Idaho Governor has recommendations on how to reduce damage from wildfires

The Governor of Idaho, C.L. “Butch” Otter, in an opinion article published under his name, has some recommendations about how to reduce the adverse impacts from wildfires. They include more roads, grazing, and logging.

Smoke from Idaho’s Mustang Fire had elevated levels of radiation

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality tested the air quality near the Mustang Fire and said that even though they found “definitely elevated” levels of radiation, it did not pose a risk to human health. The air samples were obtained in the nearby town of North Fork. As Wildfire Today told you on September 21, the fire burned through four former mining sites that had traces of radioactive uranium and thorium.

The Chicago Tribune reports:

…Paul Ritter, health physicist with the state environmental agency, said in the area of the mining sites, smoke from the fire showed amounts of radiation roughly equivalent to emissions from a fire in 2000 that charred parts of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nuclear weapons design facility in New Mexico.

“The readings are definitely elevated but not out of line with what has been measured in fires before. It is not a risk,” he said.

Americans are exposed to an estimated 310 millirems of radiation a year from natural sources, including some rocks and soils, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

An analysis of air samples in North Fork showed residents would have been exposed to 0.5 millirems of radiation in a 30-day period. That compares to a dose of 5 millirems delivered by a round-trip transcontinental flight, Ritter said.

Utah students influence legislation about wildfires

Some high school students in Utah who were interested in the effects of climate change talked to state Representative Kraig Powell, who, according to a report in Power Engineering:

…has opened a bill file for legislation that would examine how climate change is expected to drive more and bigger wildfires and to begin planning for future wildfire fighting and suppression costs.

In early meetings with Powell, [the students] shared some of what they had learned about wildfire in Utah. For instance, they told how the state already has seen 400,000 acres burned this year with suppression costs of $47.1 million — part of a trend prompted by record hot and dry periods.

They also told how rehabilitating burned areas often costs more than fighting the wildfire itself. Their example? The 2007 Milford Flat fire which racked up a $5 million bill for suppression, while rehabilitating the scarred forest and range cost $17 million.

That’s what led to the concept for the bill, which is currently being drafted by the Legislature’s lawyers.

“I’ve been learning a lot,” Powell said. “It’s not a simple science.”

Meth production may have caused brush fire

Michigan State Police are investigating a small wildfire that may have originated from an attempt to cook meth in Marquette Township.

Researchers quantify effects of wildfire smoke on residents

Researchers in British Columbia took advantage of smoky conditions from wildfires near Kelowna (map) and other areas in southeastern B.C. in 2003 to study the effects of smoke on the residents. The fires that year burned over 67,000 acres, destroyed 238 homes, and forced 33,000 people to evacuate.

The study not only evaluated the particulate data from air quality monitoring stations, but also the human health impacts, especially in urban settings.

Smoke effects, British Columbia 2003
Difference in weekly asthma visits for 2003 versus the average of 2002 and 2004 (when there were few fires in the study area) plotted against the difference in average weekly total PM10 measurements for Kelowna, the largest city in the study area. Bars indicate the weekly sum of 2003 asthma-specific visits minus the averages of the 2002 and 2004 weekly sums of asthma visits. The black line indicates the average weekly TEOM-measured PM10 in 2003 minus the average of weekly measurements in 2002 and 2004. (From the referenced study.)

The researchers found that increases in smoke particulates, PM10, were associated with increased odds of respiratory physician visits and hospital admissions, but not with cardiovascular health outcomes. Residents in Kelowna experienced an increase of 100 micrograms of particulate per cubic meter of air, which resulted in an 80 percent increase in respiratory hospital admissions and a six percent increase in the odds of an asthma-specific physician visit.

Thankfully, the University of British Columbia authors, Sarah B. Henderson, Michael Brauer1, Ying C. MacNab, and Susan M. Kennedy, made the entire paper freely available to the public, honoring the principles of Open Access.

Boycott research on firefighters that is not Open Access

Open Access logo
Open Access logo

We all hate paying for something and then not receiving what we paid for. That is what is happening now to taxpayers who pay for government-funded research and then have no access to the findings.

We have ranted about this before, and documented another example a few days ago when we discovered that it will cost us $41 to obtain a copy of the findings from research conducted by the University of Georgia. Associate Professor Luke Naeher and others found that  lung function decreases for firefighters who work on prescribed fires for multiple days and are exposed to smoke. Further, it showed that respiratory functions slowly declined over a 10-week season.

This is not the only research that has explored the effects of smoke on wildland firefighters, but it may significantly add to the limited body of knowledge we have on the topic. We won’t know, however, unless we pay a second time in order to see their conclusions.

Researchers at some organizations receive pay raises and promotions based partially on the “publish or perish” meme. A system that requires researchers to publish in journals that are not completely open to the public, is antiquated and has no place in 2011 when a paper can be published in seconds on the internet at little or no cost.

Some of the research that has been conducted on firefighters requires a great deal of cooperation from the firefighters, including for example, ingesting core temperature monitors, carrying a drinking water system that monitors every drink they take, and even lubricating and then inserting a rectal thermistor probe attached to wires.

The Boycott

There is no reason for firefighters to go to extreme lengths to help researchers advance the researcher’s career paths unless the firefighters can receive some benefits from the project. So, we are jumping on the idea proposed by Rileymon in a comment on the University of Georgia article:

Maybe it’s time to suggest that firefighter/research subjects boycott new research studies unless the findings are put into the Public Domain?

Here is what we are proposing:

  1. Firefighters, administrators, and land managers should not cooperate with researchers unless they can be assured that findings from the research will be available to the public at no charge immediately following the publication of the findings, or very shortly thereafter.
  2. Researchers should conform to the principles of Open Access.
  3. Scientists who assist in the peer review process for conferences or journals should pledge to only do so only if the accepted publications are made available to the public at no charge via the internet.

More information:


Study: firefighters’ lung function decreases after exposure to smoke

A new study from the University of Georgia found that lung function decreases for firefighters who work on prescribed fires for multiple days and are exposed to smoke. Further, it showed that respiratory functions slowly declined over a 10-week season.

Unfortunately, even though the study was probably funded by taxpayers, you will have to pay a second time see the study’s results. It will cost you $41 to purchase the article that contains the detailed findings uncovered during the research. The University of Georgia decided to pay a private journal to publish the article, rather than placing it on the

Smoke, fire-N-of-Cascade-Rd-2006
Firefighter working in smoke, fire near Hot Springs, SD in 2006. Photo by Bill Gabbert

University’s web site for free. We have written previously about taxpayers not being able to access taxpayer-funded research. Why does the government continue to fund research, if the product of the research is not made available? A call to Luke Naeher, the senior author of the study, was not immediately returned.

Here is a summary of the report, which thankfully, is provided by the University of Georgia at no cost.


December 5, 2011

After monitoring firefighters working at prescribed burns in the southeastern United States, University of Georgia researchers found that lung function decreased with successive days of exposure to smoke and other particulate matter.

“What we found suggested a decline in lung function across work seasons,” said Olorunfemi Adetona, a postdoctoral research associate and lead author of the study published recently in the journal Inhalation Toxicology.

Luke Naeher, senior author and associate professor in the UGA College of Public Health, explained that the study was designed to investigate whether the 26 firefighters experienced a decrease in lung function working at prescribed burns compared with days they spent away from the fires. Previously, researchers had looked only at changes in lung function of wildland firefighters on days with exposure to smoke.

“Over a 10-week season, these workers’ respiratory functions slowly declined,” Naeher said, adding that there is need to investigate the degree to which these declines returned to their baseline after the burn season. Although results of the study show that lung function at the start of two burn seasons in a limited number of nine firefighters in 2003 and 2004 did not vary significantly, more definitive answers relating to the issue of longer term effect of exposure on lung function would require a different study design.

In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has sought to better understand and improve its occupational exposure limits for firefighters across the country. Most studies have concentrated on burns in Western states where exposure to and composition of wood-smoke particulate matter may vary to some degree when compared with fires in the Southeast, including South Carolina, where the study was done.

Naeher said the study provides some preliminary information regarding the health effects of fine particulate matter exposure that is intermediate between two exposure extremes. On the low extreme lies ambient air levels typical for developed countries, while inhalation of particles by a smoker represents the opposite extreme. Much research in the field has focused on health effects at both extremes. However, the study of exposure at intermediate levels, like that experienced by wildland firefighters, and women and children exposed to indoor air pollution from cook stoves in developing countries is limited. Naeher’s research focuses on these two different populations, and he explains that the study of the body’s response tothese intermediate exposures may now be more urgent. For example, Naeher said, an initiative led by the United Nations Foundation aims to put clean-burning cooking stoves in 100 million homes in developing countries by 2020.


UPDATE: We heard from Luke Naeher on December 14, 2011. He told us that the research was funded by the University of Georgia, and the Department of Energy-Savannah River Operations Office through the U.S. Forest Service. He sent us copies of two research papers that were published in journals owned by Informa, a company with their head office in Switzerland: Personal PM2.5 Exposure Among Wildland Firefighers Working at Prescribed Forest Burns in Southeastern United States, and Lung function changes in wildland firefighters working at prescribed burns. Mr. Naeher said he cannot change the system in place for reporting science in the peer-review literature, but he will always share his published work freely with anybody who asks

Wildland firefighters: rhabdomyolysis or “rhabdo” can be extremely serious

Employee's left leg after 5 surgeries
From the FLA. Employee’s left leg after 5 surgeries

I will have to admit that when the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Risk Management Committee distributed some information earlier this year about rhabdomyolysis, which is frequently referred to as “rhabdo”, I didn’t pay much attention. But today when the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center announced that a Facilitated Learning Analysis (FLA) for a severe case of rhabdo was available, I read it carefully and am now converted. The injury in the FLA occurred September 21, 2011 while a firefighter was taking the Work Capacity Test, or “pack test”. I have seen the light and realize how serious this condition can be.

Left untreated, or if not treated early enough, rhabdo can  lead to irreversible muscle damage, permanent disability, kidney failure possibly requiring lifelong dialysis, and even death. Up to 8% of cases of rhabdomyolysis are fatal according to a NIOSH report. And all of this can be the result of exercising hard or engaging in a strenuous fire assignment if other risk factors are also present.

Rhabdomyolysis is the breakdown of muscle fibers resulting in the release of muscle contents (myoglobin) into the bloodstream which are harmful to the kidneys and may lead to kidney failure.

The link between rhabdo and “compartment syndrome”, the condition that is emphasized in the FLA, is certain, but it is not clear to me, having much more fire training than medical training, if compartment syndrome leads to rhabdo or vice versa, and my research found conflicting information. But that is not really important, in that both conditions are similar in that they are caused by damaged muscle tissue. Compartment syndrome occurs when the damaged muscle is inside an enclosed compartment in a fibrous sheath with other muscles, as is found in the arms and legs. Rhabdo can occur with any muscles, but both can lead to the same outcome, including death.

I was disappointed that the recently released FLA did not state the cause of the injured employee’s compartment syndrome/rhabdo, nor did it provide much useful information about how to prevent a similar occurrence, other than to “prioritize staying physically fit”, and the “incorporation of healthy lifestyle choices and better nutrition”. So I attempted to gather some information here in one place that will hopefully be useful for wildland firefighters, to increase their chances of avoiding rhambdo, or diagnosing it if it occurs.
Continue reading “Wildland firefighters: rhabdomyolysis or “rhabdo” can be extremely serious”

The myth of drinking water

Above: Firefighter on the Shep Canyon fire in South Dakota, September 6, 2011. Photo: Bill Gabbert/Wildfire Today.

After reading our excerpt and later the full document from the the Serious Accident Investigation Factual Report  for the hyperthermia fatality on the CR 337 fire in Texas, we heard from Dr. Brent Ruby, who has completed studies on this exact issue, even having studied wildland firefighters while they were working on fires. In one of his studies he was monitoring a wildland firefighter outfitted with a core temperature monitor, an ambient temperature sensor, and a special Camelback hydration system that monitored his water intake. This firefighter experienced a heat-related illness, heat exhaustion, and had to be evacuated off the fireline by a helicopter. That was a terrible thing to happen to a firefighter, and I’m sure the researchers thought the same thing, but it was probably a once in a lifetime cornucopia of incredibly useful data. Dr. Ruby sent us this message, reprinted here with his permission:

I was bothered by the findings of the CR337 fatality report from the investigation team. There are issues within this case that are very similar to a published heat exhaustion case study we published recently (Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 22, 122-125, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21664560). In this report, we document drinking behavior, activity patterns, skin and core temperatures in a subject that suffered heat exhaustion and required evacuation. The lessons learned from this research clearly indicate that the best protection against a heat injury is reducing work rate. [*the abstract from the study is below]

Aggressive hydration strategies are over-preached and may provide a false sense of protection. It should be emphasized that the autopsy report as described in the fatality report indicated no signs of dehydration or electrolyte imbalance. I have tried to push these concepts to crews and safety officers when I get a chance to speak to them at meetings. I was bothered by this fatality knowing that it is seemingly directly linked to some of our research findings. I have tried to emphasize this to anyone that will listen in the world of wildfire.

You can certainly review our website to gain a better understanding of the publications we have done from research with the WLFF http://www.umt.edu/wpem. We have a great deal of physiological data, hydration, energy demands of the job, importance of supplemental feedings, etc. from all our work over the years. This peer reviewed research provides objective, scientific evidence that can be used to to change or influence policy to enhance safety on the line.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Regards, Brent Ruby

Brent C. Ruby, Ph.D., FACSM

Director, Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, The University of Montana

* Here is the abstract from the study:

Wilderness Environ Med. 2011 Jun;22(2):122-5.

High work output combined with high ambient temperatures caused heat exhaustion in a wildland firefighter despite high fluid intake.

Cuddy JS, Ruby BC.

Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, The University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812-1825, USA.

The purpose of this case study is to examine the physiological/behavioral factors leading up to heat exhaustion in a male wildland firefighter during wildland fire suppression. The participant (24 years old, 173 cm, 70 kg, and 3 years firefighting experience) experienced heat exhaustion following 7 hours of high ambient temperatures and arduous work on the fire line during the month of August. At the time of the heat-related incident (HRI), core temperature was 40.1 °C (104.2 °F) and skin temperature was 34.4 °C (93.9 °F). His work output averaged 1067 counts·min(-1) (arbitrary units for measuring activity) for the 7 hours prior to the HRI, a very high rate of work over an extended time period during wildfire suppression.

In the 2.5 hours leading up to the heat incident, he was exposed to a mean ambient temperature of 44.6 °C (112.3 °F), with a maximum temperature of 59.7 °C (139.5 °F). He consumed an average of 840 mL·h(-1) in the 7 hours leading up to the incident and took an average of 24 ± 11 drinks·h(-1) (total of 170 drinks). The combined effects of a high work rate and high ambient temperatures resulted in an elevated core temperature and a higher volume and frequency of drinking than typically seen in this population, ultimately ending in heat exhaustion and removal from the fire line.

The data demonstrate that heat-related incidents can occur even with aggressive fluid intake during wildland fire suppression.

Unfortunately, even though Dr. Ruby’s research is funded by taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense, taxpayers are blocked from seeing the full results unless they pay a fee to the privately owned company that published the paper. We have written before about the results of taxpayer-funded wildfire-related research being held hostage by private companies. Dr. Ruby told Wildfire Today that he will send a copy of his paper to individuals that write to him at brent dot ruby at mso dot umt dot edu

The combined information about the fatality of Caleb Hamm on the CR 337 fire and Dr. Ruby’s study on wildland firefighters, is shocking. From the abstract, again:

The data demonstrate that heat-related incidents can occur even with aggressive fluid intake during wildland fire suppression.

Working on a wildfire on a hot day can lead to heat exhaustion and hyperthermia, and can be fatal EVEN IF a person drinks plenty of water and is not dehydrated.

Symptoms and prevention

We asked Dr. Ruby for more information:

Exertional hyperthermia occurs when the metabolic heat production from hard work overwhelms the bodies ability to off load it to the environment. This unloading can be blocked by clothing and/or slowed due to high radiant heat from the sun or an adjacent fire.

The basic symptoms of heat exhaustion are commonplace and can include profuse sweating, weakness, nausea, sometimes vomiting, lightheadedness, headache and sometimes mild muscle cramps.

The best approach [to prevent heat exhaustion and hyperthermia] is to know thyself and thy physical limits. Establishing a pace schedule that allows temperature to come back down in between periods of work that result in a rise in temperature. The factors of importance are pace, fitness level for the task at hand, hydration behaviors and simultaneously electrolyte concentrations in the blood.

It is important for wildland firefighters to drink plenty of water, but this will not, by itself, totally eliminate all chances of heat-related illness.

Be careful out there.


UPDATE  October 27, 2011:

Dr. Ruby sent us the following list of other publications on similar topics that are in peer reviewed journals. I assume that most of them are not available to the public (don’t get me started on that again!) unless you pay the ransom fees at the private companies, or send a message to Dr. Ruby:  brent dot ruby at mso dot umt dot edu

Dr Ruby articles


UPDATE October 28, 2011:

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has an excellent article about heatstroke, which can follow heat cramps and heat exhaustion and is life-threatening. The article includes causes, symptoms, first aid, what not to do, when to call 911, and prevention (including “avoid exercise or strenuous physical activity outside during hot or humid weather”. Good luck with that one, firefighters.)