In the past few days, the Texas Forest Service has responded to 127 fires for 9,205 acres. On September 12th, firefighters responded to 10 new fires on 179 acres. It is currently estimated that 1,939 homes have been destroyed since Labor Day weekend. Largely a result of the current Texas drought, the state is under a siege from epic wildfires that continue to wreak havoc on the environment–our air, land and water.
Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon announced this was the hottest summer on record for Texas — and the hottest summer ever for any U.S. state, based on preliminary numbers — and last month he declared Texas is in the midst of its worst one-year drought on record.
Coming on the heels of the state’s hottest and driest summer in recorded history, the most destructive human health impact of the fires is not burn injuries – it’s the smoke. Injury from smoke and toxin inhalation may account for as many as 60-80% of fire-related deaths in the United States. In fact, respiratory failure is the most common cause of death in many burn centers. The CDC says the mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and plants materials from wildfires can cause all kinds of symptoms in everyone…eye and respiratory irritation, but they can especially exacerbate chronic conditions like heart disease, asthma and chronic obstruction pulmonary disease (COPD). Children are among those who are at the greatest risk for adverse health effects of smoke. Their airways are still developing. They breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults and children also are more likely to be active outdoors.
The Texas Department of State Health Services warns that children should be kept away from fire debris areas during cleanup, since ash and dust from burned buildings might contain toxic and cancer causing chemicals including asbestos, arsenic and lead.
Though the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) says they do not expect long-term health effects of the recent and current smoke plumes, the fires’ profound impact on the air (the reason why school athletics are being cancelled and postponed and asthma victims are put on high alert) should remind us of Texas’ already dismal air quality. There are important measures we all need to should take to deal with the current wildfire emergency in the short-term. But we must also take action for the protection of our children in the long-term. Texas air quality was a serious problem before the fires, and it will be an even greater health challenge hereafter.