Courtesy North Star Fire Facebook
Air support skirts the heavy smoke spewing from the North Star Fire which as of this morning has burnt 200,000-plus acres, mostly on the Colville Indian Reservation.

Breathing Fire: What Are Health Risks From Recent Wildfires?

Jack McNeel

Forest fires obviously present grave dangers to those men and women working on the fire lines. Three firefighters were killed earlier in August at a fire near Twisp, Washington on the eastern side of the Cascades. Other than that horrible incident this year’s fires have been relatively injury-free. But smoke and ash from the fires can create problems for people many miles from the fires themselves.

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There are four hospitals in Okanogan County, Washington where several fires are still actively burning, the most notable being the North Star Fire which was just under 180,000 acres Thursday night and listed at 22 percent contained.

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Indian Country Today talked with Laurie Jones, Public Health Officer for Okanogan County, to find out what sorts of injuries and health issues were being reported by the hospitals.

The good news is that the number of injuries to firefighters has been surprisingly low. There have been some relatively minor injuries such as burns. Mike Billings, Administer of the Mid Valley Hospital in Omak and just off the Colville Reservation said they had a week with five injured fire fighters. “One was held overnight and released and the others were treated and released,” he said, “just minor burns or lacerations.”

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Respiratory problems associated from breathing smoke with ash and fine particulates have caused some problems but not as extensive as might be expected. “I’m surprised it isn’t worse,” Jones commented

“Our public health message has been to stay inside if you can because air quality has been very hazardous. We distributed over 40,000 N25 Masks in a day and a half. We were cognizant that people who were outside needed to protect themselves.” The King County Police Department in Seattle donated the first shipment and drove the five hours to deliver them.

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“We work closely with the Colville Tribe,” Jones added. “They actually have an air scrubber at the Omak Senior Center, the only clean air shelter in the county which is awesome.”

Both Jones and Billings attribute the relatively low number of respiratory problems to the fact that people are staying indoors as much as possible. Billings told of recently going to lunch at a popular restaurant at noon and being the only person in the restaurant. “People are being smart and staying home and wearing masks. Right now the air quality is labeled hazardous.”

Asked specifically about health problems with youngsters Jones answered, “I don’t know for sure of problems. Let’s put it this way, it’s summertime and there aren’t any kids out playing. They must be listening to us and staying inside. So it’s a good thing.”

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Conditions change daily as wind and weather conditions change but Jones said as of now schools plan to start next Wednesday.

Vehicular accidents were also a concern but fortunately that also doesn’t seem to have occurred. Laurie Jones explained, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Even up to yesterday it was like driving in a fog, having your headlights on.” She tells of a recent trip on Highway 97. “I couldn’t see 20 feet in front of me. It was that bad and that’s kind of spooky.”

The worries are still there. Saturday morning weather forecasts were not encouraging. A “red-flag” warning was issued for the region and the town of Republic, just north of the reservation, was preparing for a possible Level 3 evacuation notice.

RELATED: Fires, Drought, Melting Glaciers: Tribal Climate Experts Hope We Haven’t Passed the Tipping Point

Fire season can last into October so the region isn’t out of danger yet by any means. “We also worry about the long-term effects,” Jones said. “What does that constant smoke do, long term? You’re breathing that stuff in day after day. I’m not sure anyone can answer that at this point.”

As of 9:47 a.m. August 31 the acreage burned in the North Star Fire largely on the Colville Reservation was listed at 200,593 acres.

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