Fire season has started with a big roar as Canada blankets New York with smoke. I hear from my patients that school, which is never called off in New York, has been canceled for safety reasons.
We are certainly not immune as the Bullet Fire has burned down more than 3000 acres of the Tonto Forest. As of yesterday, this fire is thankfully fully contained. Fountain Hills also had a brush fire that is now under control. This begs the question not if but when our next fire will occur.
Vegetation has grown like crazy with the wet fall, mild winter, and long spring we have had. Seeing the green on the mountain early this spring, it is easy to predict that we are already having issues with wildfires.
I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to review basics on fire and fire safety for you by answering some questions my patients ask about fires.
1. How close is safe during a fire evacuation?
First let me talk about carbon monoxide. This is produced in a fire in an amount that depends on the size of the fire, what is burning, and the stage of combustion. The highest concentrations are within the active fire perimeter, in the smoke plume when organic chemicals are burned, and in the area downwind of the fire source. Anywhere in the vicinity of carbon monoxide is dangerous because it pushes gases like oxygen off the pigment in our blood cells that normally carry it to our vital organs. Effectively, it smothers us from the inside.
Fires can spread rapidly. Wind and dry grasses and brush tend to result in faster spread (Welcome to Arizona, right?) Embers from one area carried by the wind to a distant area can start new fires. Wildfires also tend to move faster than home fires, for example, due to the amount of fuel available. When fires do spread rapidly, it can be easy to become entrapped succumb to burns, smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning. Toxic gases and chemicals can be released, and like I tell my patients that vape, our lungs were not meant to inhale gases and chemicals, even when they are “natural”.
If you are being evacuated, go as fast as you can. One of my patients was caught on a road for hours during the Oregon fire of a few years ago, and this proved to be an extremely frightening ordeal.
2. The Governor of NY passed out N95 masks. Do N95 masks protect against the smoke from a fire?
While N95 masks filter particulate matter, they do not protect against carbon monoxide, volatile organic chemicals, and other toxic pollutants that make air unbreathable.
3. How do I know where the fires are in my area?
My favorite app for this is airnow.gov. There is a fire map that is updated regularly, and I find it very useful when traveling outside of Arizona. WildfireAZ.com also gives information about wildfires in Arizona.
4. What are ways to prevent and be safe in a fire?
I’m going to divide this into items under our control, and items in the hands of the government.
Items under our control:
Items under government control:
5. What do I do if I start having respiratory symptoms due to a fire?
Move away from the fire and evacuate! You should not be that close.
If you were already exposed and are safe but still have symptoms, take your rescue medication if you have one due to underlying lung symptoms. If this is not working or symptoms are severe, consider seeing your physician or going to the emergency room for care. If you have symptoms and have not been previously diagnosed with a lung condition, see your doctor as soon as possible and if the symptoms are severe, go straight to the emergency room.
6. How can I prepare for a potential evacuation?
One of my patients mentioned that she had a few bags packed and placed them and her portable pet cages near her door when a fire broke out in her vicinity. This seemed like a great idea since there may not be much warning during an evacuation.