As of Thursday, more than 26,000 firefighters across 12 states are fighting 102 large fires over 4.4 million acres. If you find yourself gasping for air just viewing footage, can you imagine what firefighters on the front lines are feeling? It is known that wildland fire smoke poses a hazard to first responders in extreme wildland fire events; however, we do not know the long-term impact of this exposure to provide adequate guidance to better protect Wildland Firefighters (WLFF).
There is evidence that suggests occupational wildland fire smoke exposure may have a cumulative effect, specifically because studies focused on chronic exposure to wood smoke have linked it to the development of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD) and stiffening of central arteries in otherwise healthy people.
However, while epidemiological studies can provide evidence of trends and associated risks, they cannot pinpoint which burn scenarios are the most dangerous to long-term health or recommend feasible protective equipment to reduce the risks to WLFF. To help formulate recommendations and guidance on shift duration, cost/benefit of aggressive firefighting tactics, and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for WLFF, studies under well-characterized and reproducible experimental conditions are needed.
To provide the knowledge needed to develop recommendations to reduce WLFF exposure, the Fire Protection Research Foundation is collaborating with Northeastern University and the University of California Berkeley on a research project to conduct these types of experiments to quantify the effects of exposure on the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems in firefighters to develop a better understanding of the health consequences and offer guidance on ways to mitigate these impacts. The funding for this project is through a DHS/FEMA AFG Fire Grant and it is a 3-year effort targeted to wrap up in September 2021. Look for more updates here and on the Foundation website as this project progresses.