Wildfires in Washington spark health concerns during COVID-19 pandemic

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources reported 546 wildfires so far in 2020, as of July 30. The DNR issued a burn ban in efforts to slow the increasing rate of wildfires sparking across the state.

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands, said the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting new challenges in fighting wildfires this season. This includes putting an entire crew on a 14-day quarantine if one person tests positive coronavirus. She said a lack of firefighters and resources could be catastrophic this season in putting out the flames.

“We are in a deficit already for having enough resources in a really bad fire season,” said Franz.

The commissioner said she is commending communities for following guidelines and people taking care of each other during the pandemic. She said the same sentiment can be applied during wildfire season.

“Over the last five to six months, we have learned this protocol about how we don’t just take care of ourselves, but we take care of our neighbors. And, I think we are urging people to realize the same is true in wildfires. They can take steps to make sure they are not doing any activity that will lead to or cause a fire,” said Franz. “People are staying home, they are staying safe and they are getting out on their yards. And they have been creating debris piles, which is great, we want them to clean up their yard and create a defensible space around their home. But we don’t want them lighting those debris piles on fire.”

Franz said there are currently 100 more wildfires than the state’s 10-year average. The increase has officials at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department concerned about the risk of heavy smoke in the air.

“COVID-19 and wildfire smoke together make an even bigger problem. And some of the same people that are most vulnerable to those health impacts from COVID-19 are also most vulnerable to the health impacts from wildfire smoke,” said Judy Olsen, environmental health supervisor at the health department.

Olsen said she has asthma. She said people with respiratory or heart conditions who have hunkered down during the pandemic will have to do the same for wildfire smoke.

“Because it’s so small it can travel very deep into your lungs and even into your bloodstream. So the health effects can start with eye and nose irritation and grow to cause breathing problems,” said Olsen. “If the smoke is causing somebody to cough more and they also happen to be COVID positive and don’t know, they could be then spreading more of the virus.”

In past wildfire seasons, the health department would urge people to find “clean air shelters,” like libraries, community centers or shopping malls. But Olsen said that can’t happen now due to social distancing guidelines. Olsen said the county health department is encouraging people to create a “clean air room” at home.

“One room that you can stay in all day long if there is a smoke event. And you really want to limit going in and out that room so you want to have snacks water available have some movies or a 500 piece puzzle or something to keep you entertained in that room,” said Olsen.

Olsen mentioned the clean air room should also consist of an air cleaner or purifier. For those who cannot afford the device, The Puget Sound Air Agency has a video demonstrating how to convert a box fan into an air cleaner using a furnace filter.

Along with physical health, Olsen said people should take care of their mental health during the pandemic and wildfire season.

“Psychologically, I think it’s very challenging for a person who has a chronic condition that makes them at risk to both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke. I think there are a lot of personal changes you need to make in your life to stay safe during this time,” said Olsen. “It is a really hard time. We are in the beautiful Northwest and we’re asking people to potentially stay inside even more. And so, finding ways to reach out and stay connected with your family and friends and community that are alternatives to what you’ve traditionally done is going to be really important because our mental health is as important as our physical health.”

Franz said 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Just as the state has asked people to do their part in reducing the spread of coronavirus, Franz said the DNR is also asking people to help in reducing the spread of wildfires.

“Do not light any campfires do not do any debris piles or outdoor burning. Take care of your vehicle in the sense that make sure there are no chains dragging off. Sometimes you’ll see a chain dragging on the asphalt it creates a spark, it flies over the side of the road and then we have thousands of acres on fire,” said Franz. “In doing so, they not only are protecting themselves, their homes, their neighbors—they’re protecting our firefighters, they’re also protecting our ability to ensure that Washington state has clear blue skies and our forest don’t burn down and our people, including our firefighters, stay healthy and safe this year.”