The quest to understand the toxic effects of fighting wildfires has taken on a new urgency in California

Searching for survivors in the wreckage of last years deadly Camp fire, the Marin county battalion chief, Jeremy Pierce, had to hear and feel his way through the debris. Black, murky smoke had disappeared entire streets in and near the small California town of Paradise.

It was daytime but you thought it was night, he said.

Pierce, who has been fighting wildland fires for 28 years, knows how to navigate around smoke. You have to find pockets of clean air, he said, and keep going until you cant any more.

Pierce has used this technique at the Camp fire, the Carr fire before that, and the Kincade fire hes been battling in the past weeks. He knows that the toxic vapors canstick in his system long after the flames have died down and the adrenaline has faded.

Over the past decade, scientists have been working to better understand how firefighters exposure to smoke and chemical vapors affects their long-term health. In California, the researchers work has taken on a new urgency as increasingly ferocious fires burn through wilderness and development alike, unleashingunprecedented amounts of gases and particulate upon those battling the blazes.

We know that firefighters have pretty intense exposures under those conditions, said Rachel Morello-Frosch, an environmental scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. An analysis she released in July found that firefighters who fought the October 2017 Tubbs fire, which raged for more than three weeks through nearly 37,000 acres in Californias wine country and killed 22, came home with heightened levels of mercury and other toxic chemicals in their blood.Blood samples from 149 firefighters deployed to Tubbs showed higher rates of mercury compared not only with members of the general public, but also with other firefighters who werent deployed.

This was just an initial, pilot study, Morello-Frosch said. Still, it seemed to validate what many firefighters already suspected: those working in regions referred to as wildland-urban interface, where residential areas blend into wilderness, face elevated health risks.

Fighting wildfires in suburban areas creates a unique health hazard. Photograph: Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images

Risks of firefighting are changing

Wildland firefighters are often exposed to smoke for longer periods of time, working 40-, 50- or 60-hour shifts, even camping and sleeping amid the fumes. Theyre doing backbreaking work, said Morello-Frosch, digging lines, trimming trees and hiking for miles.

They tend to wear relatively lightweight gear so they can stay nimble. Whereas the responders running into burning buildings wear heavy-duty masks that feed them clean air, wildland firefighters might use a handkerchief.

And a simple handkerchief might do, if all that was burning was vegetation. But the dynamics of wildfire have changed, said Matt Alba, a fire captain who led his San Francisco-based strike team to the Camp fire last year.

As communities have built and expanded into the wild areas, its not just plants and leaves burning, its homes and structures too, Alba said.

Paradise didnt smell like wildfire smoke, he recalled. There was this awful taste to it. We just knew it was wrong. His crew fought through stinging eyes and headaches.

Most of the houses in Paradise were prefabricated, and when they burned so did a noxious mix of plastics, metals, household cleaning chemicals and who knows what else. There were charred piles of just open cans, and lots of burned out cars, he said some with bodies in them. It was apocalyptic.

Firefighter health 1

Afterward, he said, we got all new boots, because ours were just covered in a lot of toxic content.

Scientists still dont knowwhat exactly that content contains and how toxic it may be. Thats always the 50-million-dollar question, said Morello-Frosch. Fumes from anything and everything that burns have the potential to cause harm, but so do PFAS a controversial class of chemicals used in firefighters turnout gear and so does the neon-pink fire retardant that responders blanket over blazes, she said.

Does firefighting cause cancer?

Researchers are working to understand howexposure to a noxious cocktail of fumes and particulate will affect firefighters bodies. Several studies have established that urban firefighters have higher rates of cancer than the general population. A study of nearly 30,000 firefighters from 1950-2009 by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that those who fight urban fires have higher rates of certain types of cancers including digestive, lung, throat, and urinary cancers. It also found that firefighters experience 14% more cancer deaths than the general public.

Federal researchers are encouraging firefighters across the nation to register for the largest-to-date study of firefighters and cancer. Theyre also looking into whether firefighters work affects their risk for heart disease.

In the meantime, groups like the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation (SFFCPF) are campaigning to phase out the use of PFAS chemicals and develop better, lightweight protective equipment.

When I entered the SF fire department in 1974, we didnt really consider cancer a major cause of death, said Toni Stefani, the president of the SFFCPF. Back then, he saw young, seemingly healthy friends and colleagues succumbing to cancer. We were going to funerals all the time for a lot of the retired firefighters, he said.

Stefani himself was only 49 when he was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma in 2001.

The problem hasnt gone away. Even now, the numbers keep piling up, he said.

Fighting the Easy fire in Californias Simi Valley. Photograph: Ronen Tivony/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

But fire departments are a lot more careful now. Hopefully, as we learn more, we can develop new standard operating procedures thatll better protect these men and women, he said.

In Santa Rosa, California, after toiling to beat back the Kincade fire for days, Jeremy Pierce said he was aware of these local and national conversations about the physical toll of the job. Hes taken precautions: he tries to keep himself and his crew upwind of smoke while working. Afterward, he makes sure to clean off, the best he can, before going back home. I dont want to expose my family to anything toxic, he said.

Otherwise, he accepts the risks of the job. You know, nobody gets out of this profession without some damage along the way, he said. But there isnt a firefighter around who doesnt have that drive to help people despite everything.



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