Extreme wildfires in the US could lead to long-term lung damage

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This year’s exceptional wildfire season could drag on until December, and the resulting air pollution poses a serious risk to people’s health

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There is no relief on the horizon for beleaguered citizens in California, Montana, Oregon and other western states besieged by an abnormally large profusion of forest fires.

Nationally, wildfires this year have scorched 3.3 million hectares. That is roughly the size of Maryland, and way ahead of the 2.25-million-hectare annual average up to September seen between 2006 and 2016.

The US National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Idaho says there are currently 64 very large fires. Montana has been worst hit, suffering 25, and Oregon now has 17.

And it looks like there is more to come. Most western states will remain at risk throughout September. “Fuel moisture levels and fire danger indices in these areas are at near-record to record levels for severity,” warns the NIFC. In August, rainfall was 25 per cent below average in western states – and temperatures were 2 to 6°C higher than normal.

As part of its wildfire outlook for the rest of the year, the NIFC predicts fires this month in parts of Idaho, Nevada and Utah. There, grasses were two to three times more profuse than usual, but have since dried out.

The NIFC says states such as Montana are so bone dry that they could still be at risk in October. Fires are also likely as late as December in central Texas and most of Oklahoma, following a predicted dry spell in late autumn.

Charities supporting lung health warn that people exposed to smoke and other pollution from the fires are at higher risk of short and long-term lung damage. Children, whose lungs are still immature, and the elderly are most at risk.

“We consider unhealthy air to contain around 35 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic metre, but in Montana, they’re looking at just under 1000 over many days on a regular basis,” says Janice Nolen of the American Lung Association in Washington DC. “A colleague of mine up there is saying he can’t breathe.”

“Man-made climate change is making things incrementally hotter and allowing for fuels to dry out that much faster,” says John Abatzoglou at the University of Idaho. There is also “a legacy of fire suppression and fuel accumulation” that has intensified the natural pattern of wildfires in the US.

“We need to prevent this going forward, and one reason we’re having this crisis is climate change,” says Nolen. “It’s exacerbating these events, making them more likely and more severe, so as a nation we need to act now to reduce the burden going forward,” she says.

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