Firefighters' Health: Up in Smoke?

Former California firefighter Afrack Vargas will never forget his first experience with a wildfire.

"We got to the fire, we were going code 3 -- lights and sirens. We were going very fast," he recalled. "I looked up and saw the top of the mountain was on fire."

"I said, 'I'm sure glad we're down here and not up there,' and my crew foreman said, 'Well, that's where we're going.'"

Many years and countless fires later, Vargas is now a spokesperson for the California State Firefighters' Association, a trade organization that represents more than 24,000 of the state's firefighters.

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And he said that while the immediate hazards to the more than 6,000 firefighters working the wildfires in California are obvious, the possibility of long-term damage to the health of these heroes is also a concern.

The health effects from wildfire smoke inhalation are numerous, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They run the gamut from irritation of air passages to permanent damage and worsening of pre-existing heart and lung conditions.

And pulmonary experts agree that in light of these potential hazards, firefighters battling the California blazes should take special precautions to protect their lungs.

But in many cases, Vargas said, these precautions are ignored -- which may mean that these firefighters are putting themselves at risk of both short- and long-term health complications.

An Unreasonable Risk?

Dr. Clifford Bassett, vice chair of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology's Public Education Committee, said past evidence from fire rescue operations suggests a special breathing apparatus should be an essential piece of gear for any firefighter exposed to smoky conditions.

"Obviously, first responders need to use specialized respirators to protect against particulate matter in the air," Bassett said. "We had our fires secondary to 9/11 actively smoldering for over three months, and they caused a great deal of lung, nasal and sinus problems as well as 'acid reflux' type symptoms, as well."

Dr. Alan Leff, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at the University of Chicago, agrees.

"Firefighters close to the fire should wear self-contained respirators that seal them off from inhaling smoke," Leff said. "In general, any and all should carry respirators to cover all circumstances."

But Vargas said the gear is largely impractical for use in situations such as the California wildfires, making it unlikely that firefighters will even use the equipment.

"There are very few respirators being used, you just don't have the oxygen supplies to really use a completely contained breathing apparatus," Vargas said. "Perhaps in a structure fire, or vehicle fire, where you can get in and out very quickly.

"The air bottles only last 30 minutes, they're not really designed for wildfires."

Instead, he said, these firefighters normally opt for simple face masks or bandanas to protect themselves from the clouds of choking smoke.

"If you take your shirt right now and cover your nose with it, you have about the same respiratory protection that firefighters do that are directly on the fire line," he said. "No, it's not a lot of protection, but ... you can't fight a fire with a 30-pound air pack, tools, and another 50 pounds of hose and equipment on your back."

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