Wildfire Smoke And Coronavirus Combine Arizona Health Risks

TUCSON, AZ — As several infernos burn across Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service is warning that the combined health risks of wildfire smoke and coronavirus shouldn’t go ignored. In a document released earlier this month, the agency said that the viral outbreak”complicates public health response to wildfire smoke.”

“People who are either susceptible to or affected by COVID-19 may have health conditions that also make them vulnerable to wildfire smoke exposure,” the document notes, though it also warns that this same dynamic is at play in the spread of coronavirus.

“Exposure to air pollutants in wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, likely including COVID-19,” the Forest Service advised, citing a recent study of coronavirus-related deaths in Northern Italy. (That study’s authors concluded that “the high level of pollution in Northern Italy should be considered an additional co-factor of the high level of lethality recorded in that area.”)

Near Tucson, fire crews continue to battle the 14,600-acre Bighorn fire, which triggered evacuation orders that were later downgraded over the weekend. According to a notification by the Pima County Office of Emergency Management, a “SET – Be Alert” warning is in effect for the areas of Mt. Lemmon and Mt. Bigelow north of Organization Ridge Road, including Summerhaven. Residents are encouraged “to consider voluntarily relocating outside the affected area with family/friends,” officials said Sunday.

As officials noted, however, this isn’t a normal wildfire season. During a normal year, finding clean air could be as simple as driving to your local mall, library or community center. While Arizona is currently reopening under social distancing guidelines, those areas may be less accessible as options for relief from the smoke.

For those staying inside, the Forest Service has several pointers for reducing the combined health risks of wildfire smoke and coronavirus:

  • Use a portable air cleaner.

  • If you have a forced air system, make sure it is set to constantly recirculate the air inside, which can reduce indoor smoke.

  • Avoid frying foods,sweeping, vacuuming, and using gas-poweredappliances that create indoor and outdoor air pollution.

  • Limit outdoor exercise when it is smoky or choose lower-intensity activities to reduce smokeexposure.

  • While cloth face coverings slow the spread of coronavirus by blocking saliva and droplets expelled by sneezes and coughs, they do not capture small particlesin smoke and “offer little protection against harmful air pollutants,” the Forest Service said.

For more information about the health risks of wildfire smoke and coronavirus, check out the Forest Service’s guidance document here. Updates on the Bighorn Fire can be found on Pima County’s online wildfire hub.

This article originally appeared on the Tucson Patch

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