How A New Study About Wildfire Smoke Could Help Firefighters

Aug 19, 2015

Forest Service researchers are taking a closer look at how wildfire smoke impacts the people most exposed to it. A five-year study will monitor the carbon monoxide levels of firefighters around the country.

Joe Domitrovich is one of the researchers on the study, based in Montana. He's a firefighter himself and knows firsthand the kind of risks that are taken by people on the job – smoke being one of many. 

"Smoke is just one of the components we have to face everyday," says Domitrovich. "However, we don't know a lot about how smoke affects our short-term and long-term health effects. So hopefully this study will allow us to be more educated."

Domitrovich says concern over long-term smoke exposure was first looked at after the 1988 Yellowstone fires, when firefighters couldn’t get a break from smoke for weeks. But, he says, researchers didn’t have the technology then to really understand the impacts. Monitors can now test toxin levels in real time.

Domitrovich and his research partner plan to work with about 500 firefighters across the country, and want to look at the ways different fuels produce different smoke. He says one of the surprising findings so far has been that smoke is most dangerous after the initial blaze is out, during the phase known as "mop up" when logs and brush continue to smolder and produce thick smoke. 

“As we deal with these risks on a minute-by-minute basis sometimes out there, it will help our firefighters make more informed decisions on how they’re operationally going to work in that fire environment.”

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