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Natural causes of air pollution: Forest Fire

What are Forest Fires?

Forest fire originated by natural causes, or in other words without human activity involved, are also known as bushfires or wildfires. These are given when fire has place in highly dense vegetation areas.

Furthermore, bushfires also contribute to deforestation, what indirectly affects air quality in forests and jungles, that are considered Earth’s lungs.

Australia is well known as a country with plenty of vegetation and wildlife. However, the country has an important issue with bushfires, as they cost more than £180 million each year (both natural and man-made).

Unfortunately, there are a huge amount of notable bushfires in history. Some examples of most important wildfires worldwide have been:

  • China (1987) burning over 72.000km2 and Indonesia (1997) burning over 97.000km2.
  • Currently the U.S. and Canada have been the most active countries last 10 years with bushfires burning around 6.6 and 6.2 acres/year respectively.

A long time ago, palaeowildfires burnt plant material leading to fossil charcoal formation. Nowadays, fossil charcoal is being used as an indicator of palaeoclimatology in order to study evolution on bushfires over the years.

Causes of Bushfires

There are several different causes that lead to forest fire, but these are made more likely when the weather is hot and dry. Fallen leaves, dry grass or branches easily light up and can cause serious trouble to both urban and rural areas.

These terrible events often pass in just a few minutes, but they can last days, or in very unfortunate situations even months. The real threat when it comes to bushfires are high winds because these fan the flames and spread the blaze.

Forest Fire Pollution

Forest fire release pollutants like smoke, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. The bigger the bushfire, the bigger emissions.

In small amounts, carbon monoxide is present human bodies. The problem is that when inhaled in large amounts, and large amount of this gas are emitted on bushfires, it becomes toxic and can cause death.

Particulates on forest fire are either solid or liquid and consist of soot, tars, and other volatile organic substances. These particles can have different sizes: PM10, PM2.5, PM0.3 and smaller. They can cause cardiovascular and respiratory problems if they penetrate deeply into humans lungs.

Nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxides are minor problems when it comes to forest fire. Nitrogen oxides are only released in big bushfires, as they only appear at greater temperatures than 1,500 degree centigrade. On the other hand, except when peat and muck soil are involved, sulphur dioxide only appears to be less than 0,2%.

Health effects of wildfires

Wildfire in California during the summer 2018 caused hazardous air conditions across the state, prompting air quality alerts and forcing many residents to take refuge indoors to avoid unhealthy exposure to bad air.

It is not just about foggy and hazy skies, human’ risks and exposure are real. The air pollution from wildfires includes huge percentage of particles PM10, PM2.5, PM0.3 and thinner. Therefore, the health effects of wildfires are very similar to the ones explained during the blog post about Particulate Matter.

These health effects of forest fires include coughing, sore throats, extreme wheezing, cardiovascular illnesses and problems into lungs and bloodstream. Of course, sensible groups like children or elderly, are more likely to acquire these symptoms.

However, what do you have to do in the event of a forest fire? Firstly, you should be worried about the dangers of wildfires, so stay tuned to a local station for recommendations. Additionally, to protect yourself from air pollution: wear some kind of pollution mask, avoid staying outdoors and close all the opening from your house to prevent air pollution to enter. Finally, avoiding riding cars will help reduce SMOG, as this is produced with the mixing of combustion gases and the air pollution produced in forest fires.

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