The tragic loss this summer of the 19 elite firefighters, known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, while battling a blaze in Yarnell, Arizona, was a devastating reminder of the deadly and destructive force of wildfires.
The danger posed by wildfires, however, extends far beyond the scope of the blaze. A new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, draws attention to the hazardous effects of wildfires on air quality in areas far away from the flames.
According to NRDC’s report, in 2011, only 22 states escaped wildfire burns within their borders, yet eight of these states still had to contend with a week or more of medium to high-density smoke conditions. In all, 50 times more area was affected by smoke than was directly affected by fire.
Wisconsin, for example, didn’t have a single resident living in an area where a wildfire burned in 2011, but well over one million Wisconsinites that year had to wheeze through smoke conditions from fires burning in other states. Wisconsin’s neighbor to the south, Illinois, was also fire-free in 2011, but had almost 12 million people living under smokey skies for at least a week. In all, about two-thirds of the United States, or nearly 212 million people, lived in areas affected by smoke conditions in 2011.
Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause asthma attacks and pneumonia. It can also exacerbate chronic heart and lung disease. Otherwise healthy people have also reported suffering from sore throats and irritated eyes.
“Wildfire smoke contains hundreds of toxic compounds,” explained Patrick L. kinney, Professor of Environmental Health Sciences and Director of the Columbia Climate and Health Program. “Public health professionals are most interested in very fine particulate matter, called PM2.5. These airborne particles are so tiny that they can make it deep into our lungs and cause serious damage.”
On October 17, the World Health Organization officially classified PM2.5 as a carcinogen.
Currently, there is no good data on the number of deaths each year in the U.S. caused by wildfire smoke, but according to Kinney, a study from a few years ago found that, worldwide, an average of 300,000 people die from wildfire smoke each year.
A 2005 study, looking at wildfires in Quebec, Canada, found that they were affecting air quality in Baltimore, Maryland, an incredible one thousand miles away. The Quebec fires sent fine particulate air pollution in Baltimore up thirty-fold.
The links between climate change and wildfires are extensive and well-studied. Climate change is intensifying drought in the U.S., leading to longer heat waves and reducing snowpack. The pine bark beetle has laid waste to vast tracts of land in the west, leaving dead trees in its wake, ripe for burning. It owes its ability to survive through the winter to climate change, and drought makes them more likely to thrive.
Earlier this week, Christiana Figueres, head of the U.N.’s Bonn-based Climate Change Secretariat, told CNN that there was “absolutely” a link between climate change and wildfires.
Australian conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has sworn to abolish the country’s carbon tax, responded by telling radio 3AW that “I think the official in question is talking through her hat.”
Sixty-one fires are currently burning in Australia — 23 are classified as out of control. In the last month 200 homes have been destroyed by fires in New South Wales and today a pilot lost his life battling the burn.