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Wildland Firefighters Face Growing Danger As Fires Increase In Intensity, Frequency

Jun 12, 2019
Originally published on June 12, 2019 6:35 pm
Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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With wildfires getting more frequent and intense, wildland firefighters face a growing danger from all that smoke. And scientists and fire agencies are only beginning to understand the risks. Jes Burns of Oregon Public Broadcasting and NPR's energy and environment team reports.

JES BURNS, BYLINE: When Timothy Ingalsbee thinks back on his days in the '80s and '90s fighting wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, he remembers the adventure of jumping out of a helicopter into the wilderness, the amazing landscapes he worked in and the camaraderie of being on a fire crew.

TIMOTHY INGALSBEE: We just slept in a heap, you know, on the ground under the stars or smoke-filled skies.

BURNS: But Ingalsbee doesn't want to remember everything.

INGALSBEE: I've tried to forget about all the forests I inhaled.

BURNS: Every wildland firefighter faces smoke, especially when they're holding fire lines and making sure burned areas don't reignite, but sometimes in camp when they're off duty as well. For decades, the only protective respiratory equipment offered to people who work wildfires and prescribed burns have been bandanas, which the Environmental Protection Agency says doesn't help.

Ingalsbee hacked and coughed his way through fire camps, suffering from the widespread general respiratory problems firefighters call Camp Crud.

INGALSBEE: I remember some seasons, I had been so impacted by the smoke I lost my sense of smell and taste for several months. It wasn't, you know, until maybe next spring it started coming back.

BURNS: It hasn't been until recently that federal fire agencies have started considering what the long-term health effects of all this smoke exposure could be. Rick Swan with the International Association of Firefighters says studies have shown firefighters who work with burning buildings have higher risks of cancer, heart and lung disease, even mental health issues. But wildland firefighters have largely been left out of the research.

RICK SWAN: I remember when they started, and everyone used to say, oh, it's just a barbecue fire. You know, I mean, it's just, you know, wood. It's no big deal.

BURNS: Now it's known wood smoke contains carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene and a whole lot of particulate matter.

ERIN SEMMENS: What does fighting fires season after season, year after year do to the long-term health of a firefighter?

BURNS: University of Montana epidemiologist Erin Semmens is trying to answer this question.

SEMMENS: We're specifically interested in respiratory health and cardiovascular health, as well as hearing.

BURNS: Semmens is using medical records and employment data to determine if there's a link.

SEMMENS: So if they're seeing, OK, some cardiovascular impacts, so maybe that is something that needs to be screened more frequently.

BURNS: Last summer, President Trump signed legislation to create a national firefighter registry to help the Centers for Disease Control track links between on-the-job exposure and cancer. But these are early days for the research and the registry.

And in the meantime, wildland firefighters are facing another fire season. This year, for the first time, firefighters are seeing this video about smoke as part of their annual health and safety refresher course.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We chase it. We breathe it. And sometimes, we choke on it. We all must deal with it.

BURNS: It outlines the short-term dangers of smoke and ways firefighters can protect themselves. Former Northwest firefighter Timothy Ingalsbee says he doesn't regret his time working wildfires and dealing with that smoke, even though he's noticed his own lung capacity suffer since leaving the woods.

INGALSBEE: As a kid, my favorite thing was snorkeling, and I could go down underwater so long I'd have to remind myself to come up. Well, those days are long gone. I have very limited downtime.

BURNS: And he predicts it will take a lot more than a training video to make sure wildland firefighters are protected, not only on the job, but long after their careers have ended.

For NPR News, I'm Jes Burns in Ashland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.