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Wildfires And Health Effects

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 2, 2023

In recent years, wildfires in Australia and California have made the headlines. Thousands of acres of farmland and forest burned, millions of people were forced to evacuate their homes, and wildlife was left without its territory. But beyond the obvious monetary and physical loss caused by a wildfire, what are the effects it can have on our health?


The first issue is a bit obvious. One of the biggest products of a wildfire (after the fire itself, that is) is smoke. According to the American Lung Association, smoke from a wildfire is made up of particle pollution, which is “a mix of very tiny solid and liquid particles suspended in air.” The size of these particles means that they can very easily get into your lungs and get stuck there. This particular type of pollution is what can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes, because the particles that are stuck in your lungs can prevent oxygen flow to the parts of your body that need it to function.


Additionally, even more than causing fatalities, these particles can also be responsible for other symptoms. The longer your exposure to the smoke, the more at risk you are for developing burning eyes, a runny nose, a scratchy throat, a headache, and potentially something like bronchitis. Imagine how you feel after attending a bonfire even briefly, even just for roasting marshmallows and having s’mores. You come away with a stinging feeling in your eyes and a bit of a cough from the smoke. Now imagine that bonfire is bigger–how much worse do you think your symptoms would be?


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COPD - Causes

COPD - Causes

The good news is that if you are an otherwise healthy person, you should be relatively safe. Unless you have extended, close exposure to the smoke, any symptoms you might get should be mild. However, the concern really is for the at-risk population. This includes people who already have chronic lung and heart diseases and age-wise includes children and the elderly. For people in this category, exposure to the smoke at any level can make diseases like asthma, emphysema, and COPD much, much worse. People who suffer from heart and lung diseases should make all possible efforts to avoid exposure to the smoke if it’s at all possible. 


What can we do to minimize wildfires?


Well, as Smokey the Bear always says, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”


This is true both on a national and personal level. On a personal level, it makes sense to be extra careful whenever you go camping or even go on a hike. Make sure you clean up after yourself, and if you make a campfire, wait until you are completely sure the fire is out for good before moving on. Sometimes a fire that you think is finished is actually still smoldering, and one good gust of wind can kick it right back up. Additionally, if you’re smoking while on the trail it’s better to carry your finished cigarettes with you until you can find a trash can to throw them out. It’s the same principle as with the campfire–a cig you might think is completely out may start back up again given the right circumstances. This also applies to any matches you might use.


On a national level, tackling climate change is another huge way to help combat the prevalence of forest fires. Beyond the carelessness of people, one of the other reasons wildfires are happening with greater frequency is the rise in temperature. Higher levels of heat in the summer are also often linked to drought conditions, and these two issues combined are a major cause of the increased frequency of wildfires. 


If we all do our part, both on a personal level and a national level, to tackle the issue causing wildfires, they will hopefully be less and less damaging to the environment and our health.


Written by Yonah Leserowitz

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