Wildfire smoke can pose a serious health hazard, and contributes significantly to air pollution.
Fires close to populated areas are of particular concern, not only in terms of the destructive power of flames to life and property, but because the smoke they generate can impact on human health.
In fact, most deaths caused by wildfires are as result of victims succumbing to smoke inhalation, not burns. Such fatalities generally occur very close to the fireline.
However, vulnerable groups – children, the elderly, and people with respiratory or heart conditions – may be at risk from smoky conditions at some distance from the fire.
Wildfire smoke also contributes to general air pollution in already polluted urban areas; the health effects of this are more difficult to quantify, but they are likely to contribute to illness in the long term.
Case study: Cape Town
Last summer fire season in Cape Town, the city’s health department stated that air pollution levels shot up as a result of numerous wildfires that raged in the area from late 2008 to early 2009.
Hazardous concentrations of air pollutants were measured on 34 days during December, January and February, chairman of the health portfolio committee, James Vos, said in a statement.
February was the worst month, with 16 so-called “episode days” recorded: an episode day is one in which pollutant levels are above those considered acceptable for inhabited areas.
The city bowl was significantly affected, and the main other affected areas were Wallacedene, Khayalitsha and Somerset West.
The statement came just before one of the biggest fires ever to hit Table Mountain, when central city inhabitants, especially those in suburbs such as Devil's Peak, Vredehoek and University Estate, experienced a night of dense smoke. Smoke still hung over the city several days later despite the fire abating and wind helping to disperse the pollution.
Executive director of city health Dr Ivan Bromfield said fine particles and other pollutants in smoke can cause a range of health problems.
Commonsense tips for dealing with wildfire smoke
Keep doors and windows closed, and run the air conditioner if you can do so without bringing in more smoky air from outside. However: smoke can start to build up indoors. If you start to experience symptoms such as coughing, watery or burning eyes, and runny nose indoors, then it may be better to get outside (unless you have been advised by authorities not to do so). Remember, hot air (and smoke) rises, so if you are suffering effects of dense smoke, and can't escape it quickly, then get nearer the ground - crouch, sit or lie down
Monitor symptoms regularly in anyone who suffers from a respiratory condition like asthma, or who has a heart condition. Call your doctor for advice at once if symptoms worsen.
Don't smoke! And don't burn anything indoors that can add to the smoke problem, like candles. Rather save vacuuming and dusting for another day.
Even if you're well away from the fire, don't exert yourself outside when the air looks smoky; this is similar to the recommendation to avoid exercising in heavy smog, during rush hour and alongside busy roads. Rather also don't let kids play outside during these times.
(- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated January 2010)
City health statement sourced from Fires raise Cape Town pollution levels. Sapa. 17 March 2009