Originally Published: October 21, 2004 7 a.m.
PRESCOTT – Local residents – especially those who witnessed the 2002 Indian Fire – welcome the prescribed burns that Prescott National Forest fire management officials are conducting. Planned burns in the area through the end of October will help protect homes and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
But for people with chronic lung ailments, controlled burns – especially large ones – may mean increased respiratory problems and a visit to the doctor's office.
Prescott pulmonary specialist Dr. Clifford Rauscher said "there's no doubt about it." His office is "a lot busier" and his phone calls increase during controlled burns in the Prescott area.
He remembers the 2002 Indian Fire that burned about 1,300 acres of forest and several homes on the south side of Prescott. "Lots of folks were in the emergency room then," he said.
"Smoke from wildfires contains chemical particulates that can aggravate many health conditions," the lung specialist said. "Inhaling microscopic bits of ashes or burned wood, and inhaling gases from manufactured and natural products like carpeting, plastic, cotton and wood, can cause harm."
If the usual medications don't work at these times, people with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and other pulmonary diseases should see their physicians if they experience certain symptoms. Those include wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty taking a full breath, chest heaviness or lightheadedness and dizziness. People may experience symptoms at the beginning of a controlled burn or they may appear as late as 24 to 72 hours after exposure, he said.
Rauscher said that there are precautions that people with chronic lung ailments can take when they know the Forest Service will be conducting a controlled burn.
Stay inside as much as possible and keep doors and windows closed, with fireplace dampers shut. Don't exercise outdoors. Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting so outside air won't enter the house. Shower at night, and wash hair, so outside pollutants aren't transferred to bed sheets. Keep an old, damp towel under the door near the threshold.
"A lot of air comes in under most doors," he said.
When outside, breathe through a damp cloth to help filter out particles in the air. Keep car windows and vents closed. Set the car air conditioner to operate on "re-circulate" so outside air doesn't get inside the vehicle.
Smoke and particulates may remain in the air for many days after fires have been extinguished, he said, so residents should take these precautions for several days after fires end. People should take extra precautions with children because their undeveloped respiratory systems are more susceptible to smoke.
"Their respiratory systems are still developing and they breathe in more air, and consequently more pollution, per pound of body mass than adults."
He suggested that people with asthma and other lung diseases keep track of planned Forest Service burns and check with their doctors about changes in medication that they may need to cope with smoky conditions.
He added that night air is more dangerous because it holds down fumes.
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