Feature

Wildfires’ toxic air leaves damage long after the smoke clears


 

When researchers arrived in Seeley Lake, Mont., a town tucked in the northern Rockies, 3 years ago, they could still smell the smoke a day after it cleared from devastating wildfires. Their plan was to chart how long it took for people to recover from living for 7 weeks surrounded by relentless smoke.

They still don’t know, because most residents haven’t recovered. In fact, they’ve gotten worse.

Forest fires had funneled hazardous air into Seeley Lake, a town of fewer than 2,000 people, for 49 days. The air quality was so bad that on some days the monitoring stations couldn’t measure the extent of the pollution. The intensity of the smoke and the length of time residents had been trapped in it were unprecedented, prompting county officials to issue their first evacuation orders because of smoke, not fire risk.

Many people stayed. That made Seeley Lake an ideal place to track the long-term health of people inundated by wildfire pollution.

So far, researchers have found that people’s lung capacity declined in the first 2 years after the smoke cleared. Chris Migliaccio, PhD, an immunologist with the University of Montana, Missoula, and associates found the percentage of residents whose lung function sank below normal thresholds more than doubled in the first year after the fire and remained low a year after that.

“There’s something wrong there,” Dr. Migliaccio said.

While it’s long been known that smoke can be dangerous when in the thick of it – triggering asthma attacks, cardiac arrests, hospitalizations and more – the Seeley Lake research confirmed what public health experts feared: Wildfire haze can have consequences long after it’s gone.

That doesn’t bode well for the 78 million people in the western United States now confronting historic wildfires.

Toxic air from fires has blanketed California and the Pacific Northwest for weeks now, causing some of the world’s worst air quality. California fires have burned roughly 2.3 million acres so far this year, and the wildfire season isn’t over yet. Oregon estimates 500,000 people in the state have been under a notice to either prepare to evacuate or leave. Smoke from the West Coast blazes has drifted as far away as Europe.

Extreme wildfires are predicted to become a regular occurrence because of climate change. And, as more people increasingly settle in fire-prone places, the risks increase. That’s shifted wildfires from being a perennial reality for rural mountain towns to becoming an annual threat for areas across the West.

Perry Hystad, PhD, an associate professor at Oregon State University, Corvallis, said the Seeley Lake research offers unique insights into wildfire smoke’s impact, which until recently had largely been unexplored. He said similar studies are likely to follow because of this fire season.

“This is the question that everybody is asking,” Dr. Hystad said. “‘I’ve been sitting in smoke for 2 weeks, how concerned should I be?’”

Dr. Migliaccio wants to know whether the lung damage he saw in Seeley Lake is reversible – or even treatable. (Think of an inhaler for asthma or other medication that prevents swollen airways.)

But those discoveries will have to wait. The team hasn’t been able to return to Seeley Lake this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Migliaccio said more research is needed on whether wildfire smoke damages organs besides the lungs, and whether routine exposure makes people more susceptible to diseases.

The combination of the fire season and the pandemic has spurred other questions as well, like whether heavy smoke exposure could lead to more COVID-19 deaths. A recent study showed a spike in influenza cases following major fire seasons.

“Now you have the combination of flu season and COVID and the wildfires,” Dr. Migliaccio said. “How are all these things going to interact come late fall or winter?”

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