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Smoke from wildfires can cause health problems for some

Smoke-related health problems are a cause for concern for some during wildfire season in Alaska
A photo taken by a pilot above the Loon Lake Fire burning about one-half mile southwest of Swan...
A photo taken by a pilot above the Loon Lake Fire burning about one-half mile southwest of Swan Lake and 10 miles northeast of Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula.(Alaska Division of Forestry)
Updated: Jun. 18, 2021 at 5:31 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) -Wildfires continue to burn across the 49th state, which is causing some residents to experience fear and anxiety about their homes being affected. As smoke fills the air, these wildfires are also leading to health concerns in some people.

“The smoke (from the 2019 Swan Lake Fire) just made me sick and made so many others sick,” said Karri Davidson, a Kenai Peninsula resident, in a Monday interview with Alaska’s News Source.

Dr. Gregory Gerboth, a pulmonologist at Providence Adult Pulmonary Clinic, said particulate matter from the smoke certainly causes at least some irritation in most people.

“The particulate matter — if you’re having that, it’s going to cause lung irritation, inflammation within your airways,” Gerboth said.

However, he said people who have underlying heart or lung related problems are the ones at most risk for experiencing severe and adverse reactions from poor, smoky air quality related to wildfires.

“If your lungs are compromised to start with, that might be enough to push you over into the edge of a respiratory attack whether it be from asthma and/or COPD,” he said. “If you have a bad heart and your oxygen level delivery is impaired, the consequence of that (is) that can push you into cardiac problems ranging from a flare of heart failure to possibly even provoking a myocardial infarction (heart attack).

Gerboth said if the air is smoky outside, it’s best to stay inside. If one has to be outdoors, he recommends wearing an N95 mask to keep out the fine particles from the smoke.

“It’s sometimes uncomfortable because they’re tight fitting and have a tight seal, and people sometimes feel like they’re struggling to breathe with a mask and tend to get a little bit hot — but if it’s short term discomfort, hopefully it will help keep you out of the hospital and may pay based on the long-term gain,” he said.

A study co-authored by Micah Hahn, a University of Alaska Anchorage researcher and professor of environmental health, shows that as wildfire smoke increases, people older than 15 along with women, Alaskan Natives, and residents in Anchorage and Fairbanks, are more likely to visit emergency rooms. The study also says that Alaska Native people were more likely to go to the ER for cardiovascular issues than non-Alaska Native people.

As of Friday June 18, there are currently 57 wildfires actively burning in Alaska.

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