Firefighters' Health: Up in Smoke?

Firefighters battling the California wildfires may risk their long-term health.

ByABC News
February 11, 2009, 1:55 AM

Oct. 24, 2007 — -- 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.

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.

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."