Coping with Wildfires

By Frankie Snow

From PHN Issue 44, Fall 2020

While coping with multiple crises, many communities this year have also had to navigate wildfires threatening their safety. Wildfires occur when there is a large fire that spreads across forests, grasslands, or brush. Their spread can also impact towns and cities nearby. Wildfires can be caused by lightning or by accidents from campfires, fireworks, or electrical failures. Small fires can be a natural part of the life cycle for forests, and indigenous communities have practiced controlled burning to encourage new growth in forests for ages. Wildfires have become more prevalent and destructive due to droughts and warmer temperatures from climate change. In the western United States, residents in California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado have had to evacuate or shelter from smoke due to a number of uncontrolled wildfires.

Incarcerated community members are uniquely impacted by wildfires and other natural disasters. These folks perform as firefighters enlisted across western states. Additionally, they live in correctional facilities impacted by these natural disasters, so safety issues are ever present. There have been multiple reports across the U.S. of poorly planned prison evacuations and insufficient precautions taken by prison administrators, risking the safety of those inside. Environmentalist and prison abolitionist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, calls for decarceration as a key strategy to address climate change, including natural disasters like wildfires. We know that resources are needed now to manage these crises safely until a better future can be realized.

Wildfires and Health Risks

The blaze and smoke from wildfires pose several health risks, including difficulty breathing, respiratory complications, heat exhaustion, irritation, and burns to the skin, as well as the eyes. People with underlying health conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, and pregnant people are at a higher risk of smoke-related health risks.

Signs of smoke-related health issues include:

  • Coughing and difficulty breathing
  • Irritated sinuses, throat, and eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Fatigue
  • Increased heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches

Wildfire smoke is a combination of gases, liquids, and tiny solid particles of burned materials. Exposure to fine particles can create irritation to the eyes, respiratory system, and heart. People with underlying health issues should seek medical treatment if they experience shortness of breath, chest pain, or uncontrollable coughing.

Wildfires impact air quality and health even if you stay inside. Air leakage from open windows and doors, cracks in the structures, and air pulled in from outside for ventilation can all draw in smoke with fine particles that create poor air quality. It is recommended to try to cover gaps as much as possible with towels or cloth. Wet towels can be more effective at trapping smoke and reduce the incoming heat. Fans that pull air out of a space and use a filter or towel on the inner side can help to trap particles. It’s important to try to maintain the quality of air indoors by avoiding the following: using aerosol sprays, smoking, frying food, and sweeping up dust or ash.

In terms of other precautions, it is recommended to wear an N95 respirator if provided. Cloth masks and bandanas do not provide sufficient protection from smoke. It is recommended to avoid being outdoors when there is poor air quality. Wearing cloth masks, spending time outside, and ventilating spaces are still recommended by the CDC for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, when coping with the risks of both wildfire smoke and COVID-19, there is no right answer on how to prioritize these safety measures.

Cleaning up from Wildfires

For people involved in clean up from wildfires, there are specific recommendations by the Environmental Protection Agency on how to handle ash. It is recommended to:

  • Avoid ash touching your skin, eyes, or mouth. If exposed, wash the area immediately.
  • During clean up, cover the skin with long clothes, gloves, and goggles if possible. (Physical contact with wet ash can lead to chemical burns.)
  • During clean up of ash, the EPA recommends a tight-fitting respirator to cover the face marked with NIOSH and N95 or P100 to ensure the respirator meets the specifications to prevent particles from entering the respiratory system.
  • Do not stir up dry ash, and always sprinkle it with water to lightly dampen it before sweeping. They advise using little water.
  • If you can, keep ash in plastic bags after clean up and avoid washing ash into drains.

Mental Health and Natural Disasters

Natural disasters can bring up strong emotions including anger, guilt, sadness, and a feeling of being “numb.” These feelings are normal and should be expected from difficult experiences, so it is important to be kind and patient with yourself if you are having difficulty coping.

Here are tips for how to manage the emotions that may come up:

  • Stay connected in the ways that feel important to you by writing letters, reading newsletters or your favorite authors, and journaling to your future or past self.
  • Maintain your mental health treatment. If you have a preexisting mental health condition, it is important to keep up your routine for what keeps you well, whether that is medication, counseling, meditation, or a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Even when it feels difficult, try to eat, drink water, get exercise, and enough rest.

Overall, staying safe during crises is about using mutual aid to share resources and maintain hope through our community relationships. Building networks across the inside and outside of prison is the foundation for how we keep each other safe, even in the scariest of times.

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