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  • Ben Jones

Battling Wildfire Air Pollution: Impacts and Strategies for a Safer Future

Updated: Feb 22

Introduction

Wildfire pollution poses significant risks to human health, the environment, and the economy. This article will explore the impact of wildfire air pollution on air quality, human health, and the environment, as well as discuss strategies to reduce its effects and promote a healthier and more sustainable future.


What is wildfire air pollution?

Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of gases, hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), water vapor, and particle pollution. Particle pollution is a major component of wildfire smoke and the principal public health threat.


Particle pollution is a general term for a mixture of solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air. It comes in many sizes and shapes, from large particles that can be seen with the naked eye to tiny particles that are only visible using an electron microscope. Particles can be made up of different components, including acids, inorganic compounds, organic chemicals, soot, metals, soil or dust particles, and biological materials.

wildfire smoke over a forest

The air we breathe, both indoors and outdoors, always contains some particle pollution. However, during a wildfire or other combustion-related activities, concentrations of particles can substantially increase in the air. This can make particle pollution visible to the naked eye, as a thick haze or smoke.

Particle pollution can have serious health effects, especially for people with heart or lung disease. It can also make it difficult to breathe for people who are healthy. Exposure to particle pollution can increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks, and premature death.


How does wildfire air pollution form?

Wildfire air pollution arises from the combustion of trees, plants, and other organic matter, releasing various gases and particles into the atmosphere.

These gases and particles can include:

  • Carbon monoxide: A colorless, odorless gas that can reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood.

  • Hydrocarbons: A group of organic compounds that can irritate the lungs and airways.

  • Nitrogen oxides: Gases that can react with other pollutants in the air to form smog.

  • Particulate matter: A mixture of solid and liquid particles that can be inhaled into the lungs.

The size of the particles in wildfire smoke is also important. Particles that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller (PM2.5) can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, where they can cause serious health problems.


The amount of air pollution that is released into the air depends on a number of factors, including the type of fuel that is burning, the intensity of the fire, and the weather conditions. Wildfires that burn in dry, windy conditions tend to produce more smoke and pollution than fires that burn in moist, humid conditions.


Wildfire air pollution can travel long distances, so it is not uncommon for people to be exposed to it even if they are not near the fire itself. This is especially true for large, widespread wildfires. This phenomenon made headlines earlier this year as wildfires in Canada sparked pollution alerts across swathes of North America as smoke was blown south along the continent's east coast.


The Impact of Wildfire Air Pollution

wildfire air pollution in an urban area

How does wildfire air pollution impact air quality?

Pollution from wildland fires has a significant impact on air quality, leading to deteriorated air conditions in affected areas. The smoke and ash emitted during wildfires release a complex mixture of gases, fine particles, and hazardous pollutants into the atmosphere.


These pollutants include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter. As a result, the concentration of these pollutants in the air rises significantly, leading to reduced air quality. The presence of pollutants can create haze, reduce visibility, and contribute to the formation of smog, further deteriorating air quality.


How does wildfire air pollution impact human health?

The health effects of wildfire air pollution can be serious, especially for older adults, pregnant women and people with respiratory problems. Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and other respiratory symptoms. It can also worsen existing conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In addition, wildfire smoke has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and cancer.


Prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke can also increase the risk of respiratory infections, including bronchitis and pneumonia. It is crucial to take appropriate precautions during wildfires to protect human health and minimize the risks associated with wildfire air pollution.


How does wildfire air pollution impact the environment?

The impact of wildfire air pollution extends beyond human health and poses significant threats to the environment. The emission of large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) during wildfires contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change and global warming.


Additionally, the release of other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and VOCs, can lead to the formation of ground-level ozone and contribute to smog. These pollutants can have detrimental effects on plant life, reducing photosynthesis and stunting growth.


Wildfire smoke also contains harmful chemicals that can contaminate soil and water sources when they settle. This can have adverse effects on aquatic ecosystems and disrupt the balance of nutrients in the soil. Furthermore, the destruction of vegetation and habitat due to wildfires can impact wildlife populations, leading to displacement and loss of biodiversity.


The environmental consequences of wildfire air pollution highlight the urgent need for effective wildfire prevention, management, and mitigation strategies to minimize its impact on the ecosystem.


What Can Be Done to Reduce Wildfire Air Pollution?


Reducing the risk of wildfires starting

Efforts to reduce the risk of forest fires play a crucial role in minimizing the level of air pollution. This involves implementing effective forest management practices, such as thinning forests to reduce fuel loads, creating defensible spaces around homes and infrastructure, and promoting prescribed burns to remove excess vegetation.


Additionally, enforcing stricter regulations and penalties for activities that can spark wildfires, like campfire negligence or improper disposal of flammable materials, can help prevent the ignition of fires. By addressing the root causes of wildfires, we can reduce the occurrence and severity of wildfires, consequently minimizing the air pollution they generate.

a Californian forest

Early detection of wildfire incidents

While reducing the risk of wildfires starting in the first place is crucially important, attention should also be given to dealing with fires once they do start. Accidents happen, as does arson.


Once a fire has started, there is a massive difference in the amount of air pollution it can emit depending on how quickly it can be extinguished. This is why early detection of wildfires is a crucial component of reducing the damage they can wreak. Until recently, wildfire detection was usually conducted via cameras, satellites and watchtowers (sometimes a combination of all three).


However, recent advancements in IoT technology represent some very encouraging potential when it comes to wildfire mitigation. Dryad Networks' Silvanet is an ultra-early wildfire detection system that provides real-time alerts and precise geographical information about just-started fires, enabling authorities to respond swiftly and effectively.


If their solution can be scaled around the world, Dryad's modelling predicts that it can prevent 1.7 billion tonnes in CO2 emissions as well as preventing 10,000 respiratory cases by 2030.

Silvanet Border Gateway

Improving air quality monitoring

Enhancing air quality monitoring systems is essential for promptly identifying and responding to wildfire air pollution. This includes the deployment of advanced sensor technologies that can accurately measure pollutant levels and provide real-time data. Improved monitoring can enable authorities to issue timely air quality alerts and advisories, allowing individuals to take necessary precautions.


Additionally, developing robust modelling techniques that can predict the spread of wildfire smoke and forecast its impact on air quality can aid in preparedness and response efforts. By investing in better air quality monitoring infrastructure, we can effectively track and manage the air pollution resulting from wildfires.


Educating the public about wildfire air pollution

Raising awareness and educating the public about the risks and impacts of wildfire air pollution is vital. Providing information on the health hazards associated with exposure to wildfire smoke and offering guidance on protective measures, such as staying indoors, using air purifiers, and wearing masks, can help individuals make informed decisions to safeguard their health.


Public education campaigns can also emphasize the importance of following local authorities' instructions during wildfire events and promoting community resilience in fire-prone areas. By empowering the public with knowledge about wildfire air pollution, we can foster a collective effort to mitigate its effects and promote a healthier, safer environment for all.


Conclusion


The importance of reducing wildfire air pollution cannot be overstated. Wildfires have devastating impacts on human health, the environment, and the economy. The release of harmful pollutants during wildfires, such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and toxic gases, poses significant risks to respiratory health, exacerbating respiratory conditions and increasing the likelihood of respiratory infections.


Additionally, wildfire air pollution contributes to the degradation of air quality, leading to visibility issues, haze, and the formation of smog. From an environmental perspective, the emission of greenhouse gases during wildfires worsens climate change, while the destruction of habitats and disruption of ecosystems have long-lasting ecological consequences.


The economic toll of wildfires, including firefighting costs, property damage, and health-related expenses, is staggering. By prioritizing efforts to reduce wildfire air pollution, we can protect human health, preserve the environment, and mitigate the socioeconomic impacts of these destructive events. It requires proactive measures, including sustainable forest management, effective fire prevention strategies, and public awareness, to tackle this pressing challenge.

wildfire detection speeds graphed

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