Beware: Wildfire Smoke Can Be Like Smoking a Couple of Packs of Cigarettes over a Few Hours

June 28, 2012 | 3:12 pm
Brenda Ekwurzel
Senior Climate Scientist, Director of Climate Science

This week I heard from a friend who evacuated from their work place and another whose parents had to evacuate from their home to protect themselves from wildfires raging throughout the West. Yet, the media coverage I have seen often focuses on the risks to and loss of property.  Coverage has been much less focused on the risks to the health of people both in close proximity to fires and those not in the immediate paths of fire, but who still can suffer from its more widespread effects.  Most probably have not heard about the concept noted by a lung doctor during the 2010 Moscow heat wavewhere people were breathing byproducts from nearby wildfires. He said they experienced the equivalent of smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes every few hours. 

Smoke-filled air from the Las Conchas Wildfire in New Mexico

Las Conchas Wildfire Smoke on the road to Abiquiu, New Mexico at 4:41 PM on June 30, 2011. Some Art historians may know Abiquiu as the town where Georgia O’Keefe often lived. Now the Las Conchas record as the largest wildfire in that state’s history has already been broken by an even larger fire erupting in May 2012. Photo by Brenda Ekwurzel.

I, too, underestimated the health risks of wildfire smoke as you can see from the thick yellow air in the photograph I took on a late June afternoon as the smoky air penetrated through the cloth I tried to cover my mouth with. I should have stayed indoors.

The smoke was from the Las Conchas Fire that caused temporary evacuation of Los Alamos National Lab and was by that date the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. You can see in this NASA image that the smoke blew north toward Abiquiu where I took the picture. Now that record has been broken by the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire that started in May 2012 – the largest wildfire in New Mexico state history.

One might consider this an isolated two record year events. Scientists taking the longer view over decades by studying western US mountain wildfires that were little influenced by land use history found a clear trend. Those wildfires are on the risewith the warming climate where earlier spring snowmelt and drying soils contribute to large fire risks.

Waldo Canyon Fire Colorado

The view of the Waldo Canyon fire 15 minutes before the Sideris family evacuated their home in Colorado Springs, CO on June 26, 2012. Photo by Terry Sideris.

At lower elevations forest management history, such as fire suppression that can increase underbrush growth and add fuel for future fires, natural cycles such as the Pacific Ocean El Niño phase, and a host of many other factors influence wildfires. Adding to the risks are the forests that have been ravaged by the pine bark beetle pest, such as those in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The pest has turned many forests into a tinder box when lightning strikes or fires start from human activities. 

How can wildfires be dangerous to our health?

During Russia’s massive wildfires during the summer of the extreme and deadly heat wave , chief pulmonologist, Alexander Chuchalin, stated on July 28, 2010 that “(The current level of) carbon monoxide damages an average of 20 percent of red blood cells in a human body which equals [sic] the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within three or four hours.” His advice to those suffering at the time was to wear masks, stay indoors, take antioxidents, and clear their lungs using nebulizers. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of incomplete combustion of any carbon source such as typically occurs during wildfires.

Active wildfires reported on June 27, 2012 website.

Wildfires depicted around the nation as reported by the Incident Information System accessed on June 27, 2012 (

So as I look at the incident report for wildfires around the nation I hope people are hearing from local officials advice similar to that the Russian doctor gave and also available at the Centers for Disease Control.

Let us know if you live in a region where wildfires have occurred or our occurring and tell us if you recall the relative proportion of media coverage you received about the risks to property versus the risks to yourself from the unhealthy air.