Air Pollution and Forest Fires

Compelling evidence suggests that air pollution is a key player in the onset of global warming. It is also believed that due to the longer, hotter, and drier seasons in certain regions as a result of global warming, forest fires are far more likely to occur as well as become more difficult to maintain.

An even bigger concern is the exponential affect this may have. After the pollution has done its part in perpetuating global warming and creating an ideal environment for forest fires, the burning of the forests then contribute even more pollutants right back into the atmosphere. Particulate matter, especially. Many experts fear that we are already gradually falling into this perpetual cycle of air pollution and forest fires.

In addition to the wildfires that are becoming more and more common, several other forest fires are routinely started intentionally, serving as a land-use change tool. In many parts of the world, there are restrictions in place that regulate how prescribed fires may be applied, but none can be conducted without producing some degree of ambient air pollutants.

Particularly in the Southwest and the Midwestern United States, pollution caused by forest fires is of increasing concern. Both are areas that have seen a drastic increase in wildfires in recent years. The American Lung Association has expressly urged residents in those areas who suffer from respiratory disorders such as bronchitis, asthma or emphysema to closely monitor their breathing patterns and to avoid exposure to the airborne matter produced by the fires as much as possible. They have also given similar warnings to individuals with chronic heart disease.

The particulate matter emitted by forest fires is so fine that ordinary dust masks cannot adequately filter out the tiny particles. In order to properly protect yourself, it is recommended that you use only masks with genuine HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters. Unfortunately, these special masks are generally more expensive, and some people with lung diseases have reported that they are somewhat difficult to breathe through.

Even if the effect of a nearby fire on the local air quality seems minimal, prolonged exposure should be avoided. This is especially true in the case of the elderly, and children whose lungs have not yet developed to their full capacity. It is also not recommended that you exercise outdoors for any period of time when the air conditions are questionable due to a forest fire. When driving through an affected area, keep your windows up and refrain from using your vehicles ventilation system. To maintain a comfortable temperature, you should use your air conditioning in conjunction with the recirculation setting, so that no outside air will be brought into the vehicle. The same logic should be applied to your home ventilation system.

If you decide to volunteer to help your community clean up after a fire, there are similar precautions you should take. People with respiratory problems should avoid areas that have dust or soot present. An appropriate mask should be worn during cleanup, and all dust and soot areas should be hosed down if possible to minimize the amount of air-borne particulates.