Wildfires in the Desert
To really understand something, it helps to look through the eyes of an expert. Someone who has experienced it first-hand and can describe how it looks, feels, smells…
Adam is a Phoenix firefighter who is dedicated to his job, and to his community. He’s very experienced in fighting both structure fires and wildland fires, and was kind enough to give us his time to answer a few questions about wildfires and how they affect our health. You can read our Q&A below!
Q: In a previous post I discussed how the large amounts of rain we received this year provided a lot more growth, which dried out and supplied a ton of fuel for the wildfires, specifically the wildfire in the Superstition Mountains. Are there other factors contributing to why the risk is so high this year?
A: The monsoon season was late this year, so we haven’t gotten moisture as early as predicted. We had a long spring and a late summer, and there are more ground fuels, which are able to spread anything that starts.
A lot of the fires most people don’t hear about. They might make the news, but most of them don’t. On the Fourth of July, there were 22 fires going just in the City of Phoenix.
Q: What is the risk for patients (my chronic lung patients/COPD/asthma)? Wildfires even cause symptoms to others (tearing eyes, rhinorrhea/runny nose when there are no allergens out)?
A: For people who aren’t directly on the fire line, most of that stuff is just irritating. People who have asthma, COPD, or other pulmonary diseases definitely need to be more careful. Stay inside, stay someplace that has air conditioning where they can filter the air. Maybe even get a HEPA filter. It will scrub out the really small carcinogens or irritants in the air.
Q: What are the zones of risk for the fire? What risks do carbon monoxide pose?
A: Carbon monoxide is really only a risk to firefighters themselves. The amount of carbon monoxide that the general public receives from the smoke plumes and drift smoke is much smaller than in the hot zones. A hot zone requires you to wear PPE, or personal protective equipment. For the firemen that would be gloves, Nomex shirts, Nomex pants, hood…If we’re talking about wildland firefighters, in general there is no respiratory protection. They work such long hours, and it’s such arduous work. Structure firefighters wear masks and a bottle, but we typically only work in 20 minute cycles. Wildland fighters work up to 16 hours straight. An SCBA, a self-contained breathing apparatus, weighs about 35 pounds and will last around 20-30 minutes, so they work without them. They’re absolutely at risk for lung disease because they’re exposed for weeks at a time. However, even though they’re exposed for longer amounts of time, the things they’re exposed to aren’t as deadly as what structure firefighters are exposed to. Polycarbons…everything that’s inside your house now is made out of some kind of plastic…rubber…really nasty chemicals when they burn.
Q: What advice do you have for people in our communities? How can we keep our homes safe before, during and after a wildfire? What precautions should we take?
A: If somebody is in what we call a wildland urban interface, meaning their house is not in a community, it’s more in the foothills surrounded by vegetation and trees. There is a program called FireWise which will give them a lot of guidance on how to protect their homes from forest fires. A big part of that is having defensible space around your house. So not having trees or brush or things that come in contact with your house. If there is a fire, make sure your doors and windows stay shut.
Q: The Scottsdale Fire Department will inspect homes and comment on things the homeowner can do to reduce the risk of fires. Is this pretty common? Are there other services like this fire departments offer?
A: I work for the Phoenix fire department, and we don’t have a program like that. Our number of urban interfaces are smaller in proportion to other cities. Scottsdale has a much larger urban interface.
Q: How important are carbon monoxide and fire detectors? Is there anything else we should have in our homes?
A: Carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors are extremely important. From a structure firefighter standpoint, they save lives and property every day. On top of that, have an exit plan for your family, and realize that a door can save your life. So, if there is a fire in the hallway and you’re stuck in your bedroom, don’t try to get through the hallway. Just shut your bedroom door, call 9-1-1 and let us know where you are. If you can get through a window do that. A door can provide you a couple minutes of protection if you keep it closed. Stay low, have a plan, and know your exits.
Q: Can you tell us your perspective of fire rescue, and the injuries and issues you see in rescued people?
A: From the structure standpoint, what we typically see is smoke inhalation. People become over powered by the smoke and pass out. If they’re there for too long, they can suffocate. But in the meantime, the fire is getting bigger and they can get 1st, 2nd, or 3rd degree burns. Smoke inhalation is the most common threat.
We pulled an elderly woman out of a bathtub one day. There was an apartment fire that started in the kitchen. She couldn’t get out, so she locked herself in the bathroom, filled her tub with water, and tried to give herself the best chance she could. She was unconscious when we found her. The smoke had asphyxiated her, and she wasn’t breathing. But when we pulled her out and did CPR, she actually got a pulse and blood pressure back. She wasn’t burned at all.
From the wildland standpoint, the most dangerous thing in urban interface is people not leaving in time. They’ll wait until it’s too late, and the roads are blocked, or there is very low visibility. They get panicky and typically crash their car, get stuck, and get in trouble from the fire and the smoke. As far as rescues, if we’re not there in time to evacuate, we’re going to have a really hard time getting through any type of fire to get to somebody who is inside of a house.
Q: Even people without lung issues can develop permanent injury after acute lung damage. How are firefighters trained in prevention of acute lung injury from fire?
A: That’s a good question. I think that goes hand in hand with our focus on cancer prevention these days. There’s a very intense focus on leaving our masks on. So, we do work cycles. We’ll work until we get to a certain volume in our SCBA bottles, we’ll come out and actually take a shower with all of our gear on while breathing air before we disconnect. What we’ve learned recently is we would go into a burning house with smoke down to the ground, it’s hot. We’d put the fire out, we’d come out to the fresh air, we’d unclick our masks. What we’ve figure out is that the first breath we’d take has some of the worst carcinogens in it coming off of our gear. Our policy these days is we go in a house, we attack the fire, we put it out, we come outside, we still breath air, and we take a garden hose bath with a scrubber. One of our engines will be assigned to scrub us down with soap and water and a brush before we disconnect from our air supply. This year there has been a big focus on this. We’ve lost a lot of people from cancer in the last 2 years. Research and data and putting a focus on what’s killing us has come to the forefront.
Another thing we’ve figured out is the hoods that we wear. We have a coat, we have a helmet, we have a mask. But the hood is kind of what connects everything and makes it one solid piece. Smoke and carcinogens saturate us through our neck and our groin faster than any other place on the body. Every time we go into a fire, we exchange our hoods to try to keep those carcinogens off of our necks.
They just recently passed legislature. I think they added 12 or 20 different cancers that they consider occupational cancers for us now. A lot of these guys would get cancer and die. Insurance wouldn’t cover it because they didn’t consider it occupational. But firefighters have a 70% higher chance of contracting cancer than the general public. (For more information on the legislature, visit https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/53leg/1r/bills/hb2161p.htm)
Q: If we do need to be evacuated, would it be a challenge as there seems to be a limited ability to leave town especially in certain areas? What would you recommend if that happens?
A: There is a very real choice that you have to make. Do I evacuate? Or if the roads are jammed or closed, the next option is shelter in place. If you have a building or a plan of somewhere you feel can withstand whatever emergency you’re going through, that’s a viable option.
Q: The monsoon season is almost here. Is there anything we should be cautious of such as lightning and its effects?
A: There are quite a bit of dry lightning strikes during the monsoon season. There are several lightning caused house fires a year in Phoenix. More than that is the flash floods and losing visibility during the haboobs. Haboobs are dangerous for people with lung disease, so stay inside during these storms.
Q: How do you mentally prepare yourself to fight fires?
A: Physical fitness and training. We try to train to the point where when a real emergency happens, it’s just another drill. We try to go through such a variety of drills and exercises that when the real thing happens, it’s nothing new to us. We know our jobs; we know what needs to be done.
In the past, a long time ago, we used to be able to light an abandoned house on fire and do a real house fire. But a lot of people got hurt doing those, and it just wasn’t worth the risk. So now, instead of filling a room with smoke, I’ll cover my guys’ masks with something like a press and seal. So you can see lights and shadows, but you can’t see detail. That helps us react or perform in low visible situations like a house or building filled with smoke. It’s different. It’s a different type of darkness. Like every profession, there are guys that know their craft. They put the time in to be dedicated and professional firefighters, and there are the new probationary guys that panic. Hopefully there is a senior firefighter there to help guide them along.
Q: What do you love most about your career? Are there any stories you want to share about a person or event that stands out to you?
A: Uncertainty. Every day is different. Every call has different challenges. For several years, I would work with different people every day. My crew kept changing, and that’s a challenge in itself. I got to meet new people, figure out their skill sets, and they helped me improve my skill sets. On a day to day basis, it’s the challenges that I like the most. Whether it be solving somebody’s problem, or, two nights ago somebody had a major heart attack. He wasn’t breathing, there was no heart rate. We worked our hardest to bring him back. For almost an hour we worked him. We didn’t get him back, but we’re put in positions to help people and make a difference. We’re not always successful, and that’s hard on us. When there’s a problem we can’t fix, that’s what bothers us the most. But usually we can, and we pride ourselves on that.
Last shift we found ourselves in a pretty unique situation. Our shift starts at 8:00, and right when we got to work we were told that we were going to a community event. We went down to a VFW, Veterans of Foreign Wars, establishment and handed out backpacks filled full of school supplies to less fortunate kids and families that were just starting school and didn’t have the money to provide things for their kids. Even doing things like that, we met a lot of families and kids that are in our first due, meaning that we’re openly responsible for them if something were to happen to them. Getting opportunities to do community service is always fun and interesting.
In a Nutshell
It’s so important to stay informed on how to stay safe, and stay healthy. Professionals like Adam are always willing to share their expertise in order to help you prevent dangerous situations, and prepare you how to react in them if they do occur.
AirNow is another great resource you can use from home. You can utilize it to learn about air quality conditions near you. It also broadcasts announcements with tips and advice on how to stay safe.
Some other things to keep in mind during fire season…Inhaling carbon monoxide and fine particles can cause negative health effects such as respiratory irritation, reduced alertness, headaches, shortness of breath, etc. It can worsen existing medical conditions like asthma and heart conditions. Be sure to limit your physical activity, especially outdoor physical activity, because symptoms will be worsened as your exposure increases.
What You Can Do
If you’re experiencing symptoms like these, know someone who may be experiencing these symptoms, or just want to be educated, speak with Dr. Wendt about medications or treatments that may work for you. It’s never too late to improve your health.
Relieve Allergy Asthma & Hives is located near Kierland Commons and Scottsdale Quarter, 21803 N. Scottsdale Road Ste. 200, and has convenient evening hours to accommodate your schedule.
Dr. Wendt is also available for telemedicine appointments as appropriate. Insurance plans accepted. Call 480-500-1902 today to schedule an appointment and begin your allergy testing journey with Dr. Wendt at Relieve Allergy in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Learn more about Dr. Wendt and Relieve Allergy Asthma & Hives at www.relieveaz.com.
- Exposure to Smoke from Fires. Retrieved 5 August 2019, from https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/outdoors/air/smoke_from_fire.htm