The health impacts of wildland fires on firefighters

Wildland fires are changing burning more homes, cars, buildings and everything inside them. This is causing a ton of toxins to go in the air, and creating more threats to firefighters.

Posted: Nov 1, 2019 5:52 PM

BUTTE COUNTY, Calif. - We typically think of wildland fires as brush, trees, and shrubs, but firefighters say that's not the case anymore.

Now these fires are burning homes, cars, buildings, and everything inside them, causing a ton of toxins into the air. 

Chico Fire Division Chief Jesse Alexander says the typical wildland fire is changing. 

"You are putting all those things that would normally be associated with a structure fire, but increasing it to a larger scale," said Alexander. 

Rick Carhart from Cal Fire says you don't even know what is burning anymore. 

Rick Carhart
"Things can burn that we don't even know are there, somebody might have thrown out a tire or something," said Carhart. 

As the fires tear through cities and suburbs, fighting a fire is a different game with new risks. 

"Because you get all that stuck in an area and you are working 24, 48 hours and you are breathing that all in stuck on a line," says Alexander. 

Alexander added a home on fire pumps out hazardous chemicals like sulfur dioxide, benzenem and fermaldehyde, saying inhaling these can result in cancer. 

"You get those from normal structure fires, the poly foam that comes off when you burn couches and foams. You are going to be incorporating all that into your lungs and all the old homes that have asbestos insulation all that is still flying around in the air," said Alexander. 

When firefighters are on a structure fire they have this self containing breathing apparatus to help them get clean oxygen, but when they are fighting a wildland fire they have this that only covers their nose and mouth.

Alexander explained the protection on a wildland fire is only to protect from the heat. 

"That does no protection whatsoever for breathing in particulates, only to protect you from thermal burns, it does nothing for smoke inhilation," said Alexander. 

"When you are on a wildland fire it is impossible, there is no way you can have people fighting wildland fires on oxygen," said Carhart. 

Carhart explained even with the protective gear firefighters wear for structure fires, they are still at risk. 

"Skin still breathes and you know stuff can still get into us just from our skin even if we are not breathing it," said Carhart. 

"That was a concern at 9/11 the dust particulates that sat on people's bodies, the dust that sat on their skin versus what was being inhaled," said Alexander. 

"We need to do what we need to do we need to fight the fires and so we are going to be breathing that stuff in, there is no way around it," said Carhart. 

Alexander explained even with the risks, he still loves the job.

"You love it you love the job you have the opportunity to go out and help and I know that sounds corny, but it is the small interaction you have with people having the worst day of their life, and you just feel like its something you have always wanted to do," said Alexander. 

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We began the new week with plenty of sunshine and heat around northern California, but more heat, more wind and more potential fire danger are ahead for our area.
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