Authorities: Wildfires in Quebec possible again, prepare to protect your lungs
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Authorities: Wildfires in Quebec possible again, prepare to protect your lungs

The warning came last Monday: The most extreme fires on Earth are on the rise — more frequent and more intense.

A study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution found that worldwide, the number of forest fires has doubled in the past two decades.

Vermont residents facing some of the world’s worst wildfires may be wondering: Are they heading here?

“It could happen in the future,” said Dan Dillner, wildfire supervisor for the state Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

“We’re not at the stage of giant fires in Vermont yet,” Dillner said. But as the fires continue to send smog south into the Green Mountain State, officials say Vermonters should pay attention and prepare to protect their lungs.

Authorities: Wildfires in Quebec possible again, prepare to protect your lungs
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
Smoke rising from the 2021 Tamarack Fire that burned more than 68,000 acres in California and Nevada.

Thirteen million acres of Quebec forest burned last year, blanketing Vermont in pollution, Dillner said. In a recent report, the Canadian government predicted another year of high risk for forest fires.

In his 12 years with the Vermont Department of Health, Senior Environmental Health Manager David Grass said he has never seen wildfires have such a negative impact on Vermont’s air as they did last year.

“2023 felt qualitatively different in terms of the types of air quality that Vermont was experiencing,” he said, and the impact of last summer gave him a better appreciation for the challenges Americans face on the West Coast.

“These health issues and environmental exposures are going to be a part of their lives for a much longer period of time,” Dillner said.

When wildfire smoke passes through Vermont, it’s usually at high altitudes, unnoticed on the ground, said Bennet Leon, chief of air quality planning for the Department of Environmental Conservation. “The smoke from the wildfire that happened in Quebec last summer was nearby and didn’t have time to get into the atmosphere,” he said.

Vermont was in very high fire danger last year — a rarity when the forests are green, Dillner said. “Most of the state is hardwoods, maple, birch, oak, and when the leaves are green, the trees won’t burn,” he said. Quebec’s forests have more softwoods, such as spruce, fir and pine, which can dry out and burn easily.

“Fire is natural in this ecosystem,” he said. “What’s not natural is that the climate is changing and (last year) there just wasn’t any rain.”

“What is normal has changed,” he said. “It just feels like the time to start thinking about it and getting ready.”

With the number of wildfires on the rise in the U.S. and Canada, homeowners should start learning how to make their homes fire-resistant. Dillner recommends people mow the green areas around their homes, which can act as a buffer. Having dead vegetation near homes can be a fire hazard, he said.

“Our biggest risk is people not being careful,” he said, noting that every wildfire in Vermont last year was caused by people. “There’s no excuse for not knowing what the conditions are.”

Officials are considering how to train more workers to fight larger blazes. “I really don’t see Vermont having massive fires, thousands of acres. But even a few hundred acres of fire in Chittenden County would be quite an event,” Dillner said.

Wildfires and the resulting smoke are not a new phenomenon. Vermont has been monitoring the location and effects of fires since at least 2002, with records dating back to the early 20th century, said Lesley-Ann Dupigny, Vermont state climatologist and a professor at the University of Vermont.

“Vermont’s topography and physical terrain can cause more stagnation and poor air quality,” she wrote in an email.

It cites the Fifth National Climate Assessment released by the federal government, which found that climate change could increase air pollution and smoke from forest fires.

Carbon dioxide emissions from Canadian wildfires rose in 2023, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. That came with an increase in PM2.5 particles, according to the Yale School of Public Health. They come from smoke and can increase haze in the sky.

The size of the particles means they can penetrate deep into the lungs. When inhaled, they can cause cardiovascular or neurological disease, respiratory disease, and even death.

Grass sees the effects of airborne smoke as a pyramid.

First: people with symptoms like itchy eyes, a headache or a scratchy throat. “Just something they noticed in their body that was different from what they experienced on days with better air quality,” he said.

Grass added that a step above this are people who decide to see a doctor due to exposure to chemicals.

The final level is when the effects are severe enough to require a visit to the emergency room, usually due to a worsening of existing conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

A study by the New York State Department of Health examined emergency room visits in upstate New York during periods when wildfire smoke impacted the state. It found an 80 percent increase in visits on days when smoke was at its worst.

“I would expect Vermont to see similar impacts,” Grass said.

Across Lake Champlain, the Vermont Department of Health saw an increase in emergency room visits as Vermont saw widespread haze from the northern wildfires, particularly among people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. “You could see an increase that seemed to be happening at the same time,” Grass said.

People who have existing respiratory problems, are homeless or have to work outdoors are at greater risk of developing smoke-related lung problems, he added.

Children are also more vulnerable because of their smaller bodies and faster breathing rates, he said. Plus, they can’t always control their actions or where they might be.

He added that for people who already struggle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma, poor air quality “can be enough to push someone toward a health crisis.”

He cited a study of forest firefighters. “The more you were exposed to smoke, the more likely you were to have lung problems.”

Grass is not concerned that Vermonters are at risk of that level of exposure, but he hopes “they can take preventative measures to minimize their exposure.”

Leon, the air quality official, urges people to look out for symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath — signs they need to “take a cautious approach to life” and find a place with better air quality.

It also advises people to monitor air quality warnings via Vermont Alert or EnviroFlash, and if the air quality is particularly bad, they could even wear filter masks.

“There’s a lot of fire to the north of us, and as the wind changes direction, it brings it to us,” Dillner said, comparing it to the movement of a campfire. “Sometimes the smoke blows at you, sometimes it doesn’t.”

While the data does not indicate that Vermont is seeing more wildfires each year, it is difficult to predict future increases or decreases in the number of wildfires due to unpredictable environmental (and human) conditions, Dillner said.

“I think things are changing,” he said. “I think we’re going to have more periods of prolonged dry weather with a lot more potential for large fires.”

(Via Community News Service, a journalism internship at the University of Vermont.)