The Dangerous Health Risks That Could Follow the California Wildfires

Carolyn L. Todd
How the fires could affect people now and in the future.

The California wildfires that have already caused so much death and destruction continue to blaze, with death tolls and damage reports constantly being updated. The New York Times reports that the largest one—the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., located in Butte County in Northern California—has become the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history.

At least 63 people have been killed by the Camp Fire, with 200 still missing and death tolls expected to rise, according to the Times. The fire has already burned through 130,000 acres and 8,800 structures (most of them homes), and is only 35 percent contained. Meanwhile, the Woolsey Fire west of Los Angeles has burned over 97,000 acres and is only 40 percent contained.

In addition to the unimaginable death and destruction, these wildfires are impacting the health of the people fighting and fleeing these fires now and for years to come. Here's how—and what you can do to help.

Large wildfires have serious health effects for civilians near (and not so near) the flames.

The health effects are generally more pronounced the closer you are to the fire, where the smoke is most concentrated, which is why those on the front lines are most at risk. But "that smoke's going to go where physics dictate," Thomas Welle, a retired fire captain and manager of the Denver Field Office in the Wildfire Division of the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), tells SELF. Large fires can affect the air quality of the surrounding areas up to hundreds of miles away, Gene Gantt, executive director of the California State Firefighters’ Association, who has 35 years of firefighting experience, tells SELF. “So this is affecting the general public all over the state."

Wildfire smoke generated by burning trees and plant life, a mix of gases and tiny particles, can cause respiratory system irritation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Think about how uncomfortable you feel after a couple minutes of smoke from a tiny campfire blowing in your face, Gantt points out, but incalculably worse.) Common symptoms include coughing, nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, tightness in your chest, wheezing, and watery, itchy, eyes or eye pain, Gantt says. Headaches and tiredness are also not unusual. “You might feel like [you] have a horrible cold,” Gantt says.

This smoke can also exacerbate pre-existing health issues, which is why people with heart disease, lung disease, asthma, and chest pain are at a greater risk for issues, per the CDC. Children, who have developing airways and breathe more air per pound of body weight, are also at increased risk. Elderly people and pregnant women should also take extra caution, Gantt says.

If you're in the area, you can take common-sense precautions to minimize your exposure to smoke.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises temporarily relocating if possible, staying indoors, using HEPA-filtered air cleaners, buying particulate respirator masks, and reducing physical activity. (You can check your local air quality here.)

If you’re worried about an existing health issue or think the fires are making you unwell, get checked out. “Our recommendation for everyone is to go see your local doctor just to get a baseline on where you are,” Gantt says.

But the best way to stay safe is to be prepared for the fire, Welle says. "When the call comes, you need to go. Follow the directions of the local authorities, and get yourselves and your families and your pets safe," he says. "That can go a long way towards reducing the stress around everything."

The health risks firefighters face are heightened, both in the short and long term.

Firefighters can experience all of the above symptoms caused by smoke inhalation to a very severe degree because of the intensity and length of their exposure. They typically work 12 hour shifts at a time, and are on the scene for two to three weeks, Wille says.

While they're fighting the fire, the incredibly high temperature of the air and smoke they’re breathing in can cause irritation, pain, and damage to the lungs and airways of firefighters, Gantt says. (They also might be dodging dangers like falling trees and battling weather conditions, Welle adds.) And while you might picture firefighters having special protection, the reality is that the self-contained breathing apparatuses that firefighters use in structural fires are too heavy and inefficient for any kind of prolonged use in a wildfire situation, Gantt explains.

So most firefighters rely on bandanas and respirator masks, he says, which filter out big particles but fail to block out smaller ones. Plus, they tend to clog up and impede breathing fairly quickly.

The risks or bad air quality persist around the clock, though, Welle explains, because squads will usually set up base camp nearby—far enough from the fire to be safe, but close enough to bus or truck firefighters in and out. "They're sleeping, eating, showering near the smoke, so they're constantly exposed," Welle says. Many firefighters also find they don't have time to shower and wash their gear between shifts (during which they also have to find time to eat and sleep), so the smoke can stay on their skin and clothes for prolonged periods.

Then, there is exposure to carcinogenic gases. When houses and structures begin to burn, as is happening in California right now, the materials inside—cleaning supplies, plastic furniture and appliances, diesel tanks—can produce toxic gases and carcinogens. There is also the potential for asbestos to be released from the bedrock of older homes, Gantt says. “Firefighters are the ones right in the middle of all of that, breathing all that in.”

The other health impacts may not show up until years down the line.

“My big concern is the long term effects that you will see...in firefighters in the next five or 10 years,” Gantt says. While many of the reported links between firefighting and a number of health issues are not well established, Gantt notes, he worries about illnesses like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and adult-onset asthma among the men and women fighting the fires today. This long-term data is especially difficult to gather because forest firefighting is a seasonal job for many, Welle explains, and cross-sectional studies require studying the same population over a period of many years. One thing experts do know (and are studying more) is that firefighters experience various types of cancer at higher rates, according to the CDC.

Like other first responders—police officers, paramedics—firefighters also face an increased risk of mental health issues, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This makes sense given the high stress and trauma they experience both daily and during crises like this. "Firefighters are susceptible to PTSD," Welle says. "It may not affect you right then, but there are certain things that do come back to you." Gantt adds, "If you’re doing a body search, and it’s the community you happen to live or work in—which for a lot of these guys it is—that’s really rough."

These traumatic events can impact the mental health of disaster survivors too, of course, "People are losing neighbors, homes, pets. They’re concerned about people that may be missing," Welle says. "All that stress alone can be really difficult."

Anyone experiencing distress can call SAMHSA's Disaster Distress Helpline.

It’s normal to feel helpless in the face of a natural disaster, but there are a number of meaningful ways to help.

  • Give to the American Red Cross, which provides food and shelter to people displaced by the fires.

  • Find a cause through GoFundMe, which has set up collection pages of verified campaigns for local groups—including aid for first responders. They also have a Direct Impact Fund to ensure your donation goes straight to the individuals or charities in the communities affected.

  • If you live in Ventura, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Diego, or Butte Counties, you can sign up with Airbnb to open your home to people in need of a temporary place to stay.

  • Give money to the California Fire Foundation, which will put your donation towards $100 gift cards that firefighters give directly to victims on the ground through their Supplying Aid to Victims of Emergency (SAVE) program.

  • Donate to the California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund to support intermediate and long-term relief and recovery efforts statewide.

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