Wildfires don’t just threaten our landscape. They threaten our bodies, too.

Wildfires consume and turn to ash anything in their reach. Homes dissolve, communities disappear and entire mountain ranges are left naked and scorched. 

It’s easy to see and feel the danger when a wildfire is bearing down on your home or town. What’s more difficult is to see or feel is the impact on your body when a fire rages elsewhere—miles, tens of miles or even thousands of miles away. 

But it’s happening, and it’s something you can no longer ignore.

“Wildfire has always been around, but it’s growing, especially in the West,” says John Volckens, professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University and the director of the Center for Energy Development and Health within CSU’s Energy Institute. “It’s forecast to potentially double in severity in the next few decades. And by severity, I mean both the size and the frequency of wildfires.”

Volckens has focused his engineering research on public health and, more specifically, air pollution’s impact on human and environmental health. Fire, of course, creates air pollution, and whether there is a massive fire in California or a fire just outside of Estes Park, Northern Colorado residents are being exposed to fine particles in the air that can do serious damage. 

In fact, he says, experiencing a bad wildfire smoke day in Colorado will make you equivalent to a one- or two-pack-a-day smoker.

“There are lots of potential health effects from wildfire, and it kind of depends on who you are,” he says. “Everyone can experience irritation. We’re talking eye irritation, headache, sore throat. Those are typically the first symptoms that will show up in a wildfire episode for most of the population. They can then lead to more serious issues like respiratory irritation or respiratory impairment, trouble breathing and shortness of breath, especially if you are what I would call susceptible to air pollution or if you’re a vulnerable group.”

Susceptible groups include those with asthma, COPD or heart or lung diseases. Children and the elderly are prone to more severe reactions from breathing in smoke from wildfires.

Feeling the effects of wildfires in Colorado or beyond is something most people can relate to. Maybe it’s a lingering headache or itchy eyes, a runny nose or a scratchy throat.

Dr. Jaclyn Munson, a Fort Collins optometrist, notes we’re all at risk of irritation during fire season, and that we often don’t act on eye damage until it’s too late because only one in seven patients feels the symptoms. The key, she says, is prevention and supporting overall eye health, maintaining healthy a tear film that can withstand seasonal changes and irritants.

“You think, ‘Well, that’s not that big of a deal.’ Except when you multiply it by millions of people that get affected by wildfire smoke.” Volckens says.

As the West gets drier, the massive public health impacts of wildfires will increase. That’s why it’s time individuals work to minimize these threats to their health. 

“Climate change is real,” Volckens says candidly, “and this is one of the effects you’re experiencing in your lifetime.”   

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