Working for a company that cleans up the air in industrial spaces, I have a tendency to look at air pollution as a “heavy-duty” problem: smoke stacks, burning tires, hazardous chemicals in the air, etc. But that’s not the only way the air can become dirty enough to affect human health.
This has been driven home to me lately with the wildfires in California. There’s nothing industrial about a forest fire, but it is harmful, even if you’re not close to the fire. The reason, of course, is those small particulates in the air from the fire. Those particulates, especially the smaller ones, can penetrate far into our bodies when inhaled into the lungs, which can create or exacerbate health problems.
Fires don’t have to be accidental to cause these problems. Take a look at these photos of open agricultural fires from NASA. Even small fires, taken collectively, have a big effect on air quality over a given area. Like everything else with air quality, this is a complicated situation. Agricultural fires have benefits for a farmer, as they put nutrients back in the ground. Some people may live in areas next to this burning, but due to financial circumstances, have no choice but to breathe air that’s compromised due to the smoke and ash.
What, then, to do? Science and common sense can help to improve air quality that’s low due to large open fires. Science comes into play when thinking about fires purposely set for agricultural purposes. There’s a lot to study here in order to come up with definitive answers, but scientists, in experiments a few years ago, found that the method used to burn fields appears to have an affect on how much soot is put into the air as particulate. Head fires produced more soot in the air than backfires. If, like me, you have no idea what a head fire or backfire is, we can all be grateful for the Internet. A head fire spreads in the direction of the wind, while a backfire spreads against it.
Common sense is needed for the other major source of open-fire-sourced smoke: wildfires. People cause many of these fires, which means that many of them are preventable. I grew up in a rural area, and have camped many times, so building and controlling a fire aren’t foreign concepts to me. But regardless of how experienced you are, it’s good to review a few fire safety tips:
- Don’t leave a fire unattended. This is especially true on a windy day and/or if you’re in a dry area. You can turn your back for just a minute and lose control of the fire.
- Don’t start a fire you can’t put out. I ran into this last year. I was burning leaves and small brush in the back of our yard, when the wind picked up and spread the fire further than I intended. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a hose or other water source nearby to do anything about it. It took a few minutes to get a hose long enough to reach the fire and stop it from spreading. No harm done that time, but it taught me that the best time to prepare your fire-control methods is before you light the fire, not after.
- I don’t smoke (and you shouldn’t either if you value your lungs), but if you must smoke, make sure to properly dispose of cigarettes, cigars, and the like. All those things are burning, and throwing them on the forest floor or in a dry meadow can lead to a disaster.
- Here’s one I hadn’t considered until a recent TV commercial brought it to my attention: be careful where you park. Parking a car with a hot muffler on top of tall vegetation can light a fire.
There’s other basic tips for preventing fires. For a full list, make sure to check out this list. As a side note, you may find the history of Smokey the Bear interesting. I certainly find it funny that Smokey has his own Twitter account, too.
So let’s add common-sense open fire control to the list of little things we can each do every day to enable everyone to have cleaner air.