Learning To Live With Wildfire Smoke: Researchers Talk Public Health, Firefighter Resiliency

Mar 7, 2018

Montana researchers who are looking into the impact of wildfire smoke on people's health, and on firefighters' resiliency updated the public on their work Tuesday at the University of Montana. 

Dr. Paul Smith is a professor of medicine at UM, and a pediatric pulmonologist. 

"Anecdotally, this is one of the worse seasons we've had at Community Medical Center for kids being admitted and on ventilators. Our floor has just been chock full this season. And, you wonder," said Smith. 

Smith says that's not surprising given the duration and intensity of wildfire smoke that parts of Western Montana endured last year, especially in places like Seeley Lake.

"As far as they [the public health department] know, this is record breaking for both Canada and the U.S. There's not been that kind of exposure before," said Smith. 

Smith is a part of a team of UM researchers that's looking into how that prolonged exposure might have affected people's health. He says it's generally well known that wildfire smoke is hazardous. It contains over 1,000 different compounds, many volatile and carcinogenic, but the biggest one as far as bulk goes is particulate matter. And it's also the easiest to measure. 

Smith explained that depending on the size of the particles, some land in your nasal passage, and others make it deep into your lungs. Lung tissue has a lot of surface area and nooks and crannies where particles get stuck and then do damage to cells. 

"Us ICU docs, when we have a kid that's got bad pneumonia, think of the lung as sort of the engine of inflammation. Just compare that to what happens if you get a sunburn and how awful you feel," said Smith.

Smith said there's strong data showing that exposure to particulate matter from wildfire smoke increases respiratory illnesses and infections like pneumonia and bronchiolitis. Smoke particles can also get into your blood stream and cause clotting. 

"And that's why there's an increased incidence of strokes and heart attacks in people that are exposed to particulate matter. So, a lot of ways it can hurt you. Again, bloody well obvious test. It's not good for you," said Smith. 

Kids, people above the age of 65, and pregnant women are all considered to be extra vulnerable. But Smith pointed out that lots of people fall into those categories. 

"And if you look at at-risk populations, that's 30 percent of us," he said. 

Which is why, Smith says, all Montanans need to take the health departments' advisories seriously and try their best to follow recommendations. 

Professor Brent Ruby and Dr. Paul Smith talk about the health impacts of wildfire smoke and the resiliency of firefighters during a lecture at the University of Montana in Missoula, Tuesday March 6, 2018.
Credit Nora Saks

Those include leaving the area if it's too smoky, reducing outdoor activities, staying inside, using HEPA filters to clean indoor air, and wearing the right respirators. 

Smith acknowledged some of the inherent challenges with following those guidelines. But he stressed that just like wildfires in the west, when it comes to the negative health effects of wildfire smoke, "Obviously we're not going to be able to avoid them. These are going to continue. So what can we do to at least protect ourselves." 

Another UM researcher is looking at how to keep firefighters healthier while on the fire line. 

Professor Brent Ruby is the director of the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism. He's been chasing wildland firefighter crews and studying them in the field for over twenty years. 

"It's incredible how calibrated these firefighters are. They know when they can afford to work hard. They know when they should throttle back," said Ruby. 

Most of his work has focused on measuring and quantifying firefighters' energy expenditures and fluid needs, and tracking changes in their bodies throughout the season. He says at this point, "We know how hard the job is. We know that it's hot. We know that heat stress is an issue. We know that they have to have the right fitness going into it. We know that the diet is compromised." 

Ruby outlined some direct interventions that can help firefighters, or "frontline tactical athletes," as he calls them, better manage stressors and stay safe on the job. 

The big one is food and nutrition: what firefighters eat, how often, and how much they like what they're eating. Hint: they're sick of MREs. 

"We know that when they're fed regularly, they self-select a slightly higher work output and they're more vigilant and they pay attention more on the fire line. That is super important late in the day when the fire behavior starts to kick up," says Ruby. 

But Ruby says there are still plenty of gaps in knowledge to fill. Cognitive loads and stress are harder to measure in the field. And there are other environmental factors, like smoke exposure, that his team's research doesn't take into account.

A major priority is sharing his results with the wildland firefighter community, and to that end  he's started a podcast aimed at that audience called "On the Line."

"It's become my passion to develop an advocate stance for the health and safety of these crews. And anything we can do that uses evidence-based techniques, those should be deployed. The things that are being done occasionally — with how they're fed and how their work-rest-ratios might work — some of those things need some reconsideration based on the science." 

Ruby and Smith's lecture was part of the UM Alumni Association's Community Lecture Series called, "Beyond the Headlines: Clearing the Air with Real Evidence."  It continues on Tuesday evenings until March 27 at the UC Theater at UM.