Facing the wildfires

The increase in these catastrophic events in Canada, with smoke reaching the U.S., raises questions about the causes, how they affect our health, and how we can help stop them

By Carlos Roa

The Wildfires ravaging Canada have already broken records for total burned area, number of people forced to evacuate their homes, and cost firefighting efforts. According to a report from the news agency AP, the fire season is only halfway through.

The fires have burned 8.8 million hectares (27.7 million acres) an area about the size of the state of Virginia, according to Michael Norton, Director General of the Northern Forestry Centre, at the Canadian Forest Service.

The source adds that as of July 4th, there were 639 active fires in the country, 351 of them out of control. “So far this year there have been 3,412 fires, well above the 10-year average of 2,751”, Norton states.

As a result, over one third of the US population has been under air quality alerts, spanning over a dozen states from the Midwest to the East Coast.

Why are wildfires increasing?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cites climate change as a key factor in the increased risk and extent of wildfires, along with rising temperatures, prolonged drought, and a parched atmosphere.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate change as a key in risk and extent of wildfires, along with temperatures, prolonged drought, and a parched atmosphere.

Furthermore, “Wildfires require the alignment of a series of factors, such as temperature, humidity, and lack of moisture in fuels, such as trees, shrubs, grasses, and forest debris”, according to the same source.

This is how persistent drought and heat set the stage for extraordinary wildfire seasons, like the one we are currently witnessing.

Highlighting the health risks

As explained by the American Lung Association explains, one of the many pollutants found in wildfire smoke is particulate pollution, which is a mixture of very small solid and liquid particles suspended in the air.  “These particles are so small that they enter deep into the lungs, triggering asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes”.

They add that “studies conducted on children in California revealed that those who breathed the smoke-laden air during wildfires had more coughing, wheezing, bronchitis, colds, and were more likely to visit the doctor or be hospitalized for respiratory reasons, especially asthma”.

Another threat detected in wildfire smoke is carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas most common during slow-burning phases of a fire and in close proximity to the flames. Inhaling CO reduces the supply of oxygen to the organs and tissues of the body and can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and, at high concentrations, death.

Wildfires also spread other harmful emissions, such as nitrogen oxides and many hazardous air pollutants.

How to take care of ourselves?

The best way to avoid breathing harmful particles from wildfire smoke is to stay indoors.

AirNow recommends using common sense. “If it looks smoky outside, it’s probably not a good time to mow the lawn or go for a run. And it’s probably not a good time for your children to play outdoors.”

The California Air Resources board suggests that people who must be outdoors for extended periods in areas with heavy smoke, or where there is ash, may want to wear a NIOSH-certified N95 respirator mask. Those with existing respiratory, lung, or heart conditions should limit their exposure by staying indoors.

Can we help to reduce wildfires?

Campfires, discarded cigarettes, and electrical equipment, such as downed power lines, cause wildfires, as listed by the Environmental Defense Fund. There are also triggers beyond human control, like a lightning strike.

However, climate change can make environments more prone to burning. The best way to combat wildfires is by fighting climate change, and we already know how to cut climate pollution. If we want to create a world where both people and nature thrive, the time to act is now.

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