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Smoke gets in your eyes, and lungs and ...

Wildfire-caused air pollution can lead to health problems in the ill, elderly, kids

Posted: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

 

  Appearing as if out of an English fog, motorists on the Sterling Highway near Robinson Loop in Sterling creep through dense smoke from wildfires burning on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Phil Hermanek

Appearing as if out of an English fog, motorists on the Sterling Highway near Robinson Loop in Sterling creep through dense smoke from wildfires burning on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

Editor's note: The following story is the second in a series examining wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula. On Thursday, the Clarion will look at causes of wildfires.

Recent forest fires burning on the Kenai Peninsula have generated dramatic billowing clouds of smoke overhead, and extremely smoking conditions in many communities from time to time.

How bad is it and are people at risk from the smoke?

Health care professionals at Central Peninsula General Hospital have not noticed any significant increase in people coming into the Emergency Department with smoke-related problems, and Central Emergency Services medics have not had any smoke-related calls.

"We did get a lot of calls from the public reporting the smoke," said CES paramedic John Evans.

"I have not heard of any smoke-related (Emergency Medical Services) calls," he said.

He also said the concentration of hazardous compounds in wildfire smoke is low.

"The lungs are resilient organs," Evans said.

"Tissues in the lungs can get hazardous particles out. That's what the cough is for," he said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "If you are healthy, you're usually not at a major risk from smoke.

"Still, it's a good idea to avoid breathing smoke if you can help it," the EPA Web site says.

Advice from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says everyone with respiratory illness or heart disease, the elderly and children should avoid exposure to smoke.

All others are cautioned by DEC to avoid outdoor activities or physical exertion when conditions reach unhealthy levels.

Air quality advisories are issued by the DEC when conditions become unhealthy. The advisories and more information on air quality as it relates to health concern can be found on the DEC Web site at www.dec.state.ak.us/air/smoke_qa.htm.

Because the big fires on the Kenai Peninsula are contained to portions of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge covered with spruce bark beetle-killed trees, the fires are being allowed to burn the dead fuel.

Unfortunately, changing weather conditions can periodically send smoke from the fires over populated areas.

Since the lightning-caused King County Creek fire and the Fox Creek fire have been burning, the wind has been mostly from the west, pushing the smoke against the Kenai Mountains.

At times, however, the winds have diminished and drifting smoke has made its way into most communities along the west coast of the peninsula.

Besides the effects of the wind, the DEC says atmospheric temperature also affects the location of the smoke from the wildfires.

A DEC advisory states worse conditions generally occur at night and in early morning hours when the atmosphere cools and smoke is brought to the surface.

During the day, surface heating will mix smoke and carry it upward, temporarily improving air quality conditions, according to the DEC.

Higher humidity also helps keep smoke to lower levels.

People planning to travel around Alaska may visit the Road Traveler Information Sys tem\at http://511.alaska.gov/ for road conditions, including whether smoky conditions exist.



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