Wildfires: They’re Not Just Dangerous to Trees

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June 27, 2011, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico The Las Conchas fire burns near the Valles Caldera National Preserve near Los Alamos (Photos: Eddie Moore / Albuquerque Journal / Zuma Press)

If there’s one thing you’re guaranteed to see in media coverage of the wildfires raging through the Southwest, it’s numbers: people evacuated, homes destroyed, and square miles swallowed by the savage flames. While these are crucial slices of information in any natural disaster, it’s important to remember the other, more secondary damage too – the kind that isn’t as immediately visible, but is no less destructive. Thankfully, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the right idea. Through a case study of the wildfires that ravaged eastern North Carolina for months in 2008, EPA researchers have found that wildfires mean more people rushing to the emergency room with respiratory and cardiovascular troubles.

“While the association of mortality and morbidity with exposure to urban air pollution is well established, the health effects associated with exposure to wildfire emissions are less understood,” the authors wrote.

(Photos from TIME: Wildfires Burn in New Mexico and Arizona)

It looks like those health effects are pretty dire – doctors saw 37% more patients with symptoms of heart failure over three days of dense smoke and dust particles from the blazing North Carolina fires and in the five days afterward, according to the study. To come up with this cheerful data, researchers obtained numbers of emergency room visits for cardiac and respiratory problems in exposed and nearby unexposed counties, with the counties determined using satellite imagery. Heart failure wasn’t the only issue – doctors also had to treat more asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, and bronchitis, as if they didn’t have enough on their hands.

But there is, as always, a caveat to this study; and it’s a pretty important one. The EPA only examined the health effects from wildfires fueled by peat – decayed vegetable matter found in swampy areas – and not from wildfires that burn non-peat vegetation, like the Arizona flames, or controlled fires that are intentionally set. “The findings cannot be extrapolated to non-peat related fires,” the study said. Maybe that’s good news, seeing as there isn’t actually a lot of peat in this country. About 1,400 square miles of pocosins – landscapes containing lots of peat – remain in North America, which is peanuts compared to the hundreds of thousands of square miles claimed by the blazes in Arizona and New Mexico. Most of the peat is in Florida, Michigan, and Minnesota, though 21 other states have small amounts of it.

(More from TIME: Q&A: Why is Arizona’s Wildfire So Tough to Contain?)

But even if peat’s geographical reach is small, it certainly isn’t inconsequential: peat is tremendously useful for heating homes, in agriculture, and even to filter contaminants from water. That sounds like a good thing, but not when we consider that the overexploitation of peat bogs for energy use leaves vast areas of wetlands barren and vulnerable to severe drought; the kind that catalyzed the huge fires in Arizona and New Mexico this year. Meanwhile, peat fires produce alarming amounts of smoke and burn much more biological mass than the more common hot canopy forest fires and grassland fires. They are also notoriously more difficult to extinguish – and our current habits and the trends that result from them aren’t helping matters much, according to the study:

Population growth and land use alterations are the primary bases for increased wildfire events worldwide. Additional stress is created by earlier snow melts, rising temperatures, cumulative effects of the current drought and other climate-related changes.

The short of it is that if the recent weird weather and skyrocketing temperatures are anything to go by, conditions are ripe for fires, peat and otherwise, to continue. And findings like these make even more urgent our need for good forest management policies and some solid action to manage the climate change and drought that will ignite the fires. It’s more than just scarred landscape that needs to be dealt with. We talk a lot about saving the environment, but we have to protect the people in it too.

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