Wildfire Smoke Leads to Emergency Room Visits in Southern Oregon

Aug 9, 2013

A photo snapped by a NASA Satellite this week captured huge plumes of wildfire smoke blanketing Southern Oregon. More than 50,000 acres of forest have burned there. In cities like Shady Cove and Grants Pass, the amount of particle pollution has reached unhealthy levels for more than a week.

A NASA Earth observatory image of mile marker 28 in the Simcoe Mountains northeast of Goldendale, Washington where eight major wildfires have burned through forests and grasslands in the Pacific Northwest.
Credit Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon

It’s a late afternoon in Glendale Oregon. The wind has shifted to the North. And, for a few hours at least, it’s rolled back the cloud of smoke that traps this town. Jim Standard, who’s the mayor of Glendale, decides to go for a walk, without his particle mask.

Standard: “I’ve sucked in a lot of smoke over the last few days and so has a lot of other people around here. This is kind of a fresh breeze actually. This is nice.”

Glendale is just a few miles from the front lines of two big forest fires. The smoke that lingers over town contains tiny particles of soot, smaller than the diameter of a human hair. It’s those little particles that make the smoke unhealthy. They can get deep into your nose, mouth, and lungs. Standard has been feeling the effects.

Standard: “Headachy, sore throat. Nose stuffy, tightness in the chest.”

The Forest Service put a particle monitor in Glendale after the fire started. The smoke pollution here has fluctuated between levels the EPA calls unhealthy up to levels it considers hazardous-- the top of the charts. Standard is not the only one having trouble breathing. Jennifer Gath is serving firefighters burgers at the U-Turn Café. Every time she takes a breath, her chest heaves from the effort.

Gath: “I have half a lung, and you add smoke on top of that, it makes it hard to breathe.”

Gath says she suffered lung damage as a result of complications when she gave birth to her daughter.

Gath: “When it starts to get smoky, and then running around the restaurant, people have noticed, you look winded. Well yeah, you try breathing in this smoke.”

For most people, wildfire smoke is unpleasant. For some it can trigger an acute health crisis-- small children, and people with asthma or chronic lung conditions. Gath says she’s managing by staying indoors and leaving town when she can. Eric Loeliger: is the director of the Emergency Center at Three Rivers Community Hospital in Grants Pass. He reviewed his admissions records for the last week. And says he saw a 15 to 20 percent increase in people admitted with breathing problems.

Loeliger: “We’re seeing everything from people who are essentially worried and well, to people that are in severe respiratory distress, respiratory failure, and requiring immediate intubation and mechanical ventilation.

Loeliger says that chronic lung problems can be difficult to control with medication, and it doesn’t take much to trigger a crisis. Wildfire smoke also poses a risk for people with heart disease, because it can reduce the flow of oxygen to their heart. He estimates the ER has seen between 50 and 60 patients with breathing problems or chest pain that appeared to be triggered by the smoke. He’s also seeing healthy people who haven’t heeded the warnings to stay inside.

Loeliger: “Some of the sickest we’ve seen are young, healthy, and have just overdone it in the conditions that are outside right now.”

Health officials say the key to dealing with the smoke is:

Kahn: “Prevention prevention prevention.”

That’s Jennifer Kahn, a physician who works with Josephine County Public Health. She says if you can’t see the nearby mountains, the smoke has probably reached an unhealthy level. Stay inside. Or wear a mask if you go outdoors. Kahn says its particularly hard to convince kids to take these precautions, including her own 3 kids.

Kahn: “I was yelling at my kids last night to put their masks on.”

Kahn says the symptoms most people experience, like coughing, are the result of the immune system trying to fight off the tiny soot particles. That starts something she calls an inflammation cascade. Those symptoms should clear up when the smoke lifts.

Kahn: “Very quickly after the smoke is gone, that cascade is stopped.”

But officials are predicting some of the fires here could burn until September. And Kahn says she worries about the firefighters. Back in Glendale, firefighter and paramedic Scott Douglas is getting ready for a night shift on the fire line. He says wildland firefighters try to avoid the smokiest areas.

Douglas: “Sometimes we’ll wear bandanas to try to keep that out of our faces, but unfortunately you are exposed to a lot of the smoke. That’s just the nature of this work.”

Douglas says on one recent bad night, he treated three firefighters in a row for smoke inhalation. But there’s another, more familiar health problem the medics are struggling to deal with. Dozens of firefighters in southern Oregon have wound up in the emergency room with severe cases of poison oak.

Copyright 2013 Northwest News