Smoky Air Dangerous For People With Lung Problems

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Smoke and ash from the Willow Fire has many residents concerned, especially those who suffer from lung ailments such as asthma.

Meteorologist David Blanchard of the National Weather Service in Flagstaff said winds are expected to blow in a northeasterly direction for most of the week, sending more smoke and ash toward Payson.

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Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles will not help avoid inhalation of smoke, ashes and particulate matter in the area.

"Looking at the wind data that we have, Payson is right in the fallout of the smoke," Blanchard said. "There will be at least three to four days of a lot of smoke."

Blanchard said winds will blow from the southwest at 10 to 20 miles per hour and then die down at night.

"At night the smoke will pool wherever it is," Blanchard said.

By Saturday, the weather service models show a wind shift.

"Saturday is showing more of a westerly wind through the weekend and then each day after that," Blanchard said.

Westerly winds, which blow east, could offer some relief unless the fire moves far enough north that Payson is directly east of the flames and smoke.

Local pulmonologist, Dr. Simran Galhotra, said smoke from a forest fire can cause permanent damage to the lungs.

"One should avoid inhaling it as much as possible," Galhotra said. "The bottom line is that people, whether they have lung disease or not, should not be inhaling the smoke because it has lots of particulates and there is also soot that can harm their lungs."

Galhotra said even if you can't smell the smoke, it can still affect you.

"You can't see the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and the fine particulates, but you can still be damaged by it," Galhotra said. "If you stay indoors in air conditioned environment it's much safer."

Galhotra discourages people from heavy exercise while smoke is in the air.

"The lungs are working much harder to bring in oxygen if they are sucking in carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide," Galhotra said. "You are actually hurting your heart rather than helping it."

According to Galhotra, it's time to go to the emergency room or call your doctor when you cannot stop coughing or when just walking around your house becomes difficult.

"If you really can't breathe, it's time to call 911," he said.

According to the American Lung Association web site, people with respiratory problems such as asthma, emphysema, bronchitis and chronic heart disease should monitor their breathing and avoid exposure to smoke and ashes.

The organization lists the following general recommendations:

  • People living in close proximity to the fire-stricken areas should remain indoors and avoid inhalation of smoke, ashes and particulate matter in the area. Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles will not help.
  • If you live close to a fire, or in the surrounding area, it's recommended that you refrain from exercising outdoors, especially if you smell smoke or notice eye and throat irritation.
  • Extra precaution should be taken for children, who are more susceptible to smoke because their respiratory systems are still developing and they breathe in more air per pound of body mass than adults.
  • When driving in your car in smoky areas, keep your windows and vents closed. Air conditioning should only be operated in the "recirculate" setting.
  • When cleaning, use a damp cloth to wipe ashes and wear a mask.

People with respiratory problems and chronic heart disease should:

  • Stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and preferably with clean air circulating through air conditioners and/or air cleaners and purifiers.
  • Due to higher levels of pollutants, there is a possibility of experiencing increased symptoms. If you are experiencing symptoms, try and contact your physician. If you cannot, asthma patients can follow the asthma action plan developed with their physician. Use your peak flow meter if prescribed. Do not hesitate to take your medication and avail yourself of the full spectrum of medications your doctor has prescribed to you.
  • If outdoor trips in smoky areas are necessary, breathe through a damp cloth to help filter out particles in the air.
  • People with asthma should check with their physician regarding any changes in medication that may be needed to cope with the smoky conditions.
  • People using oxygen should not adjust their levels of intake before consulting a physician.
  • If pulmonary symptoms are not relieved by the usual medicines, seek medical attention. Symptoms to watch for are wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty taking a full breath, chest heaviness, light headedness and dizziness.

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