Pacific Northwest wildfires blanket campus in smoke

Summer is a time that everyone associates with boating, the beach, camping, swimming and vacations. It also means wildfire season, especially in the western United States. Wildfires also start in the eastern half of the country, but as population density is higher and terrain often easier to navigate, fires often do not get as large.

The big concern with wildfires, aside from the obvious destruction of natural resources, is the threat of property damage. Wildfire speed varies greatly depending on environmental factors, especially wind. Wildfires can grow so rapidly, so they are gauged by how much they have currently burned, usually in acres. The US Forest Service reports an average wildfire size of about 31 acres.

There are more than 334,000 wildfires every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  The speed at which a wildfire spreads can also accelerate their spread. Most people who are in shape can only run about 6 MPH, but wildfires have been clocked in excess of 10 MPH.

Many wildfires are caused by human negligence. Justen Holten, a junior mechanical engineering student, observed his neighbors leaving a fire unattended in their back yard during the first week of the semester.

“I couldn’t believe they were out having a fire with it as dry as it was and with all the fires around. It wasn’t even an enclosed fire. And then to top it off, they went inside and left it unattended.” Holten said.

During the weekend of August 23-24, the winds shifted and brought a large, thick plume of smoke into the area, generated by several wildfires in the eastern part of Washington.

Renée Martin received her Master’s in Nursing at WSU Vancouver in 2010 and has 42 years of experience as a nurse. She said that there are multiple medical conditions affected by poor air quality. In fact, almost any condition can be negatively affected by poor air quality because the act of breathing is a chemical reaction.

Low air quality is most threatening for people with breathing problems and people with poor cardiac health. Also, people with diabetes can and will experience difficulties associated with impacts to air quality such as poor wound healing. Healthy people also experience problems with decreases energy and congestion.

The concerns can be noted by anyone who has taken a CPR course. Martin said “It’s the ABC’s: airway, breathing and circulation. But now they teach circulation, airway and breathing. If you’re not ventilating… you’re not getting the chemical reactions necessary to live.”

Poor air quality reduces the rate and consistency of burning the fuel your body uses. Martin said that air is only about 21% oxygen, and that percentage is further reduced when pollutants displace oxygen in the air. The body uses oxygen as a receptor in the final part of the electron transport chain that produces ATP, the body’s primary source of energy. A decrease in the availability of oxygen slows down the production of ATP and means people experience lethargy, a lack of energy.

Natural pollutants, such as pollens or dust storms, can affect the individual depending on a variety of factors, including how they breathe. Many people are mouth breathers, but the body is designed to be best when breathing through the nose because hair in the nose is a natural contaminant filter.

WSU has created several resources for air quality. Shortly before classes began for the semester, a website was created for faculty and staff frequently asked questions regarding wildfires, air quality and volunteering. That website is available at hrs.wsu.edu/air-quality-faq and covers more than just employee resources. Near the bottom of the page are links to a variety of air quality resources across the northwest.

There is also a page put out by WSU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric Research that they call AIRPACT (Air Indicator Report for Public Awareness and Community Tracking). That information can be found at www.lar.wsu.edu/airpact and includes ozone modeling predictions, smoke forecast and links to related programs.

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