Wildfires have become an annual threat for many parts of the world and are increasingly encroaching on highly populated urban areas and impacting people’s quality of life. Between the record 2020 blaze in the outback, the 950,000 hectares of precious rainforest burned in Indonesia in 2019, and the annual battle against fires in California and the Pacific Northwest, it’s difficult to go through a dry season without encountering stories of death and destruction wrought by wildfires.
And this year is no exception.
North America is poised to have its worst wildfire season to date, as fires rage uncontrollably throughout six US states and Canada. These fires have been exacerbated as North America is experiencing the strongest heatwave in recorded history, with temperatures reaching over 130° F (55° C) in some areas, largely due to climate change.
As of July 11, over 300,000 acres of forest and grasslands have caught fire in the US, forcing residents to evacuate their towns, causing massive amounts of deadly smoke pollution, and endangering the firefighters who risk their lives to combat the fires. So far, two firefighters have died due to the blaze, and thousands of people are seeking emergency medical help and fleeing their homes.
Currently, California, Oregon, Arizona, Washington, Idaho, and Montana are battling massive blazes — and just last month, Alaska put down a fire that had been raging in its rural boreal forest.
According to climatologists, there are a few conditions in the American West that make it particularly susceptible to wildfires. The first is the dry climate which creates an abundance of the burnable brush. For many states, climate change is exacerbating this problem as prolonged droughts increase the amount of dead and dry plants in the wild, creating a natural fuel source.
“Fire, in some ways, is a very simple thing,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in an interview with The New York Times. “As long as stuff is dry enough and there’s a spark, then that stuff will burn.”
Another factor that worsens the US’s forest fire problem is the Santa Ana winds, which bring dry air from America’s hot central states that increase the fire’s oxygen supply, helping it to burn hotter, faster, and spreading its embers around, allowing it to reach a wider area.
One of the final factors that contribute to the prolonged wildfire season is human intervention. No matter how dry a place is, without a spark or trigger, nothing can catch fire. For that reason, most wildfires are started by human error — whether that is through fireworks, cigarette butts, matches, or other flammable devices.
One of the most dangerous parts of forest fires isn’t actually the fire itself, but the wildfire smoke, which can spread far beyond the burn area and affect people of all ages and health levels. A recent study from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, found that wildfire smoke is more harmful to respiratory health than other common pollutants such as car exhaust and industrial pollutants.
One of the study’s authors, Rosana Aguilera, told The New York Times that, “Wildfire smoke is more toxic than the same size of fine particles that might be found in ambient pollution.”
The Environmental Protection Agency elaborates and notes that smoke exposure can cause a range of health issues, including coughing, long-term respiratory problems, asthma, chest pain, increased heartbeat, fatigue, sinus problems, and even premature death.
“The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.”
The US Center for Disease Control explains that though wildfire smoke is dangerous for anyone who breathes it, some people are at increased risk for smoke-related health problems.
“Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from burning trees and plants, buildings, and other material. Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick, but people with asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), or heart disease, and children, pregnant women, and responders are especially at risk.”
For those who live in areas affected by wildfires, the annual event can be a traumatic and hazardous ordeal. But there are a few ways you can prepare and protect yourself amid ever-worsening seasonal fires.
For those whose regions are experiencing smoke pollution, there are a few steps you can make to protect yourself and your family:
- Try to seal your home so that little outside air can enter. This works best if you can choose one or two rooms to confine yourself in and ensure they are completely sealed from the outside.
- Set up an air purifier.
- Wear an anti-pollution face mask with a respirator. Respirators can filter pollution and help you breathe easily and naturally.
For those looking to protect themselves, Cambridge Masks has created a protective face mask with military-grade filtration technology that filters out 99 percent of smoke and pollutants.
Our three-layer filtration technology is specifically designed to protect you from smoke and can filter out particles as small as PM10, PM2.5, and PM0.3. Our Cambridge Mask PRO series masks are composed of a primary filter layer, a three-ply micro-particulate filter, and a military-grade carbon filter that leave you with clean, sanitized, smoke-free air.
For those interested in learning more about wildfires, please check with the CDC or your local government.