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Protecting Wildland Firefighters from Smoke Exposure

Posted: May 27, 2021

Anticipated 2021 staffing shortages and COVID-19 make it critical to protect wildland firefighters from smoke exposure this fire season.

: National Interagency Fire Center

A dry and dangerous wildfire season is already beginning in the western United States. Drought-stricken for many years, the region experienced a dry winter and warm early Spring this year, further straining the water supply. In addition to being drier than last year's record-shattering fire season, another factor impacting wildland fire response this year is anticipated staffing shortages.

California drought conditions

  • 2020: 3% in extreme or exceptional drought
  • 2021: 73% in extreme drought


Drought conditions continue in Spring 2021

drought map showing severity in western states drought map showing severity in western states drought map showing severity in western states drought map showing severity in western states

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Now more than ever, it is important to protect the wildland firefighting workforce from smoke exposure to ensure safe and effective responses to wildfires this season.

Hazards of wildfire smoke exposure

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group's (NWCG) “6 Minutes for Safety” outlines the hazards of wildland fire smoke exposure and stresses the importance of always being on the lookout for opportunities to reduce exposure.

Wildland fire smoke is a complex mix of chemicals and particles, which varies depending on fuels, soil, weather, fire intensity and the burning phase of the fire. The smoke contains carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs, and a variety of harmful chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The NWCG also cites COVID‑19 as a compounding risk to wildland firefighters. Studies show that wildfire smoke can lead to an increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, including pneumonia. Severity of infections or symptoms may increase due to respiratory tract immune responses to smoke exposure.

The NWCG encourages decision-makers to consider ways to reduce smoke and particulate matter exposure to firefighters. Crews may not need to be in the smoke to meet operational objectives. Mop-up, holding, line construction and firing are associated with higher exposures to smoke. Look for ways to reduce smoke and particulate matter exposure during these and other tasks.

This article is based on content in the
May 27, 2021 InfoGram.

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