Resources for learning about effects of exposure to wildland fire smoke

wildland fire smoke exposure
Cover of USFS publication.

Last week the Northern Rockies Fire Science Network conducted a live webinar titled,  “Smoke Exposure Health Effects and Mitigations for Wildland Fire Personnel: Current Research and Recommendations.” The one-hour presentation was very informative and heavily emphasized how smoke from burning vegetation can be hazardous to your health, especially for firefighters. Below is the recorded version, and following that is a list of resources identified in the webinar that provide more information about the effects of wildland fire smoke. I suggest that firefighters make the video a part of their annual refresher training.

We have written dozens of times about smoke and the research efforts directed toward evaluating the effects on humans. Articles that describe the effects are all tagged “smoke & health” on Wildfire Today. At this writing there are 17 of them. This article is the 18th.

In addition to those resources, here are others that were listed in last week’s webinar. Where possible, we downloaded them to the Wildfire Today web site in order to preserve the documents.

Couples workshop for firefighter families

This is a very interesting concept — a couples workshop (or therapy or counseling?) for firefighter families. Daycare provided.

Firefighters have a lot of stress to deal with, but so do their spouses.

We have no more information about this than what is available in the tweet, and therefore can’t endorse it. But, maybe this concept will be useful and if so, could spread like wildfire. (sorry)

The firefighting agencies and departments should provide this service. It is in their best interests to have healthy employees that can be depended on who can serve out their full careers in spite of stress and difficulties. It could even have a positive effect on the astronomically high suicide rate among firefighters. Arguably, the investment might even save departments money in the long term.

This period during the shutdown of 40 percent of the government would be a good time for something like this. It makes the scheduling easier and could address the additional stress of the layoff and possible financial problems.

We also should remember that not all firefighters are part of a couple.

Prince Harry spoke about mental health to farmers, but it could have been firefighters

Prince Harry has opened up to farmers about his own mental health struggles. “Asking for help was one of the best decisions that I ever made.”

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. From ABC News video.

While on a trip to Australia Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stopped to talk with farmers who are suffering through a severe drought which has led to a cascading series of hardships. In drawing upon his own experience with depression he implored them to find someone to talk to.

His words would have been very appropriate before an audience of wildland firefighters — from January 1, 2015 through November 1, 2017 at least 68 took their own lives.

If you substitute “firefighter” for “farmer” in Prince Harry’s address, it would still be very appropriate.

Help is available for those feeling really depressed or suicidal.

Firefighter physical exams can save lives

Physical exam firefighter save life
Screen grab from the video.

As we reported earlier today, the Bureau of Land Management is beginning to provide medical exams for federal Emergency Firefighters (EFFs) in Alaska. The goal is to increase safety by identifying pre-existing conditions that could be aggravated by the arduous duty of wildland firefighting.

These two videos, each about two minutes long, tell the stories of firefighters who discovered during the physicals that they had life-threatening medical conditions. They were then able to take actions which probably saved their lives.

Alaska emergency firefighters to undergo medical exams starting in November

Alaska EFF firefighters
The Kobuk River #2 Type 2 EFF Crew working on a fire in the Lower 48 in 2018. AFS photo.

The Bureau of Land Management Alaska Fire Service in partnership with the Department of Interior Medical Standards Program (DOI MSP) will soon provide medical exams to federal Emergency Firefighters (EFF). The goal of the exams is to increase safety by identifying pre-existing conditions that could be aggravated by the arduous duty of wildland firefighting.

The medical exams will be provided in approximately 28 Alaska villages through mobile medical units and by scheduled appointments at 18 facilities throughout the state.

Starting in November EFFs in Alaska who are hired on an as-needed basis will need medical exams once every three years and self-certify in between years. The medical screening established by the DOI MSP will screen EFFs for any disqualifying medical conditions prior to participating in the Work Capacity Test (WCT), otherwise known as the pack test. Only wildland firefighters performing arduous duties are required to undergo medical exams and pass the WCT.

Schedules for the exams will be posted on the BLM AFS EFF webpage .

For the past two years, Alaska EFFs were granted exemptions to these medical screening requirements. The first phase of implementation of the medical exams began in 2015 and only included regularly employed Department of the Interior wildland firefighters. Applying the requirements to Alaska EFFs was originally planned to begin in 2017, but implementation was delayed until measures were in place to provide mobile units in rural Alaska to conduct the medical examinations. The exams do not include drug testing or affect State of Alaska EFFs.

There is no cost to the EFF for the examination, however, if the individual chooses a location other than their local village BLM AFS will not cover the associated travel costs. After the exam is completed, a determination will be made regarding the candidate’s eligibility to participate in the pack test and the arduous duty of wildland firefighting.

The BLM AFS provides wildland fire management for the Department of the Interior and Native Corporation lands in Alaska and provides oversight of the BLM Alaska aviation program. Firefighter safety and the safety of the public are core values and are fundamental in all areas of wildland fire management.

For more information, EFF candidates can email AFS_EFF@blm.gov or call EFF Program at 1-833-532-8810 or (907)356-5897.

 

Pneumonia and other hazards on the fireline

White Draw Fire, South Dakota
White Draw Fire, South Dakota, June, 2012.

(UPDATED at 4:24 p.m. PDT September 5, 2018)

The U.S. Fire Administration has designated the death of Erick Aarseth a line of duty death (LODD). The agency posted a notice on their web site that indicates Mr. Aarseth was released from the Horns Mountain Fire at 6 p.m. on August 27. The next day he was found unconscious in his apartment.

From the US Fire Administration:

“Firefighter II Eric Aarseth worked the Horns Mountain Fire in Washington on August 27 and was released at 6:00 p.m.  On August 28, Aarseth was found unresponsive at his home in Oregon. Reports indicate that Aarseth developed pneumonia which became septic. Aarseth was treated at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Springfield, Oregon, but was taken off life support on September 3 after suffering irreversible damage to his organs. Aarseth passed away early the following morning on September 4.

“Incident Location: Horns Mountain Fire near Northport, Washington (U.S. National Grid: 11U MQ 42732 18414 (DD: 48.916, -117.782))

“Department information
Miller Timber Services
PO Box 638
24745 Alsea Hwy.
Philomath, Oregon 97370

“Chief: President Lee Miller”


(Originally published at 12:59 p.m. PDT September 4, 2018)

Yesterday, September 3, 20-year-old Eric Aarseth passed away after he was found unconscious the day after he returned from a fire assignment.

His family said he returned home from the fire Monday August 27 and the next day was found unconscious in his apartment suffering from pneumonia. He was taken to a hospital but never woke up. KGW8 reported that he had vomited, obstructed his airway and developed sepsis. When it was discovered he was brain dead the family made the difficult decision to turn off the life support. He passed away Monday September 3.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that the incubation period of pneumococcal pneumonia is about 1 to 3 days. This makes it possible, or even likely, that Mr. Arseth was exposed to the conditions that led to the disease while still on the fire assignment or in travel status.  This could be a line of duty death, an LODD.

Mr. Aarseth was a member of a contractor’s hand crew fighting the Horns Mountain Fire in southern Washington. In July their crew was on the Garner Complex of Fires in southern Oregon.

Working on a hand crew is very hard work. It often means inadequate sleep, nutrition, and hygiene. An ongoing study of smokejumpers found that over the course of a season they lost muscle mass, added fat, their weight remained about the same, and often had impaired reaction time. A study we wrote about in February found firefighters’ exposure to smoke increases their disease risk. Depending on the type of work performed and the number of years of exposure, the increased risk can be 22 to 39 percent.

Wildland firefighters have enough to worry about from the fire itself, avoiding dangerous situations that could lead to being overrun by the fire, hit by a falling tree or rock, cut by a chain saw, exposed to toxic smoke, or being in a vehicle or helicopter accident. Trying to prevent something you can’t see that apparently can kill you in a matter of hours or days, like sepsis and pneumonia, is scarier than all of the above.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Alex.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.