Longer fire season heightens air quality-related health concerns

SPONSORED: With fire season starting earlier than ever, Alaska agencies are working to help protect residents from the health risks posed by smoke-filled skies.

State and federal agencies, in partnership with community groups, are working to help everyone — schoolkids to elders — prevent disaster and breathe easier in communities affected by Alaska's summer fire season.

Alaskans know a windy day can spread embers into neighboring trees, and what may have started as a simple backyard burn — or a lightning strike — can engulf thousands of acres.

Division of Forestry data from 2015 shows more than 750 fires reached 5.1 million acres in Alaska. The 10-year average for Alaska, according to the division's 2014 annual report, is 500 fires and 1 million acres burned per fire season.

For tribal communities, like Tanana and Nulato, which were affected by fire in 2015, the impact of nearby wildfires on air quality is a growing concern.

Identifying the problem

The Tribal Air Program at Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has been gathering data from tribal communities on air quality. To date, over 100 communities have completed the assessment. According to AJ Salkoski, who is the senior program manager, communities have consistently rated dump burning, road dust and indoor air quality as their top three air quality concerns.

"But smoke from wildfires is climbing the list," he said.

Following safe burning practices might prevent some wildfires, but smoke-filled skies will always be of particular concern to rural communities, where evacuation routes can be limited.

"Wildfire smoke is a mixture of gases and particles," said Ali Hamade, environmental public health program manager with the Alaska Section of Epidemiology. "Gases and particles can be hazardous to those who inhale them depending on how much they are exposed to and for how long."

A long and intense fire season, like 2015's, can be particularly troublesome for people with asthma or other chronic respiratory difficulties. Community awareness and planning can help mitigate some of those problems.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation addresses wildfire and smoke-inhalation concerns — like "Am I in danger?" and "How do I protect myself and my family?" — in a detailed Q&A online.

Nature at the door

When lightning struck in Nulato in June 2015, it sparked a massive fire endangering the lives of all in the vicinity. Advised to evacuate by community leaders, elders and children boated down the Yukon to Kaltag, while other residents, including local responders, stayed to help put out the flames.

"Nulato burned right up to the edge of the village," said Kyle Wright, environmental health specialist with the Tanana Chiefs Conference's Office of Environmental Health. "They lost a few outbuildings, but the firefighters did an amazing job of protecting Nulato and managed to save the houses."

With an evacuation plan in place, Nulato was ready for its emergency. In fact, most Alaska Native villages, as Division of Forestry's statewide prevention officer Doug Albrecht noted, already have community wildfire protection plans, but these plans should be reviewed and improved when necessary.

Tanana Chiefs' Conference employees, like Wright, also provide training for tribes and help members create a Small Community Emergency Response Plan.

Prepare to be prepared

While wildfires can start at any time, fire season is generally between March and August. However, the first fire of 2016 broke out in late February in Delta Junction.

"February is incredibly early, since everything is still covered in snow. It's something we usually see in hotter, drier months," said Salkoski.

Salkoski stresses that in addition to being prepared to leave on a moment's notice, communities must also be able to deal with the health impacts of fire when there's no need to evacuate. For example, breathing in high concentrations of PM2.5, a particle that is about 1/20 the width of a human hair, will affect anyone's health, and is especially harmful to those with respiratory problems and compromised immune systems.

Being prepared starts with self-assessment. "Do you have a plan? Do you have a clean room? Do you have a cool room? Do you have the resources?" Salkoski asks of communities. "We work with tribes to prioritize, assess and rectify some of the air quality issues at the local level."

Breathing easier

"When smoke is bad, some people want masks. We've bought them before and sent them out to villages," said Wright. However, he added, the masks come with warnings that they're not a good option for people with pre-existing respiratory conditions since restricted airflow through a respirator can make breathing more difficult.

Hamade urges all communities to have a comprehensive plan in place, one that is specific to the area. Hamade's department primarily advises other departments in the state but also provides general health information to the public reiterating the dangers of smoke inhalation.

A "clean room" is preferably one with an air conditioner, HEPA purifier and few windows, Hamade said. "We realize many residents can't afford this. So we encourage them to know where the safe place is in their area. This is something the community has to discuss, first to see what resources they have, and then to determine who will lead the effort in getting the word out."

The one benefit to a record wildfire season, like last year's, is an uptick in community and individual preparedness.

"There's always more interest in emergency preparedness and planning following an event, like floods and fires," said Wright. TCC offers a clear-cut guide, "Prepare for Wildfires in Your Community," on its homepage.

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 150,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.