What Kind of Toxic Materials Are Found in Fire Smoke?

Ask anyone about dangerous occupations and being a firefighter will inevitably make the top of the list. What most people do not realize, though, is that it isn’t the fire, or even the building collapsing around them that is the most dangerous: it’s the toxic material found in fire smoke. This is even more true, today, because our homes and commercial buildings are increasingly filled with chemicals in plastics, foams, fabrics and other materials that weren’t in existence not all that long ago.

Breathing smoke during or even following a fire is hazardous because not all materials burn cleanly, resulting in toxic-laced smoke and soot being produced. These substances can be extremely harmful to anyone breathing them in. Even though firefighters wear protective clothing, masks and carry oxygen tanks, not everything seals well enough to remove all toxins.

Different types of fires release different substances. Every fire produces smoke that contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter, which is microscopic solids or liquids suspended in the smoke. Particulates have the ability to penetrate into the lungs and blood stream and may cause DNA mutations, heart attacks and other serious issues. Depending on type, specific fires can contain toxic materials, such as:

  • aldehydes
  • acid gases
  • cyanide
  • sulfur dioxide
  • nitrogen oxides
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
  • benzene
  • toluene
  • styrene
  • various metals
  • dioxins

When carbon monoxide is inhaled, oxygen in the body is depleted, which can lead to headaches, heart conditions and reduced alertness. Particulates that reach the lungs can cause a wide range of health issues, such as shortness of breath, respiratory irritation, as well as make conditions like asthma and heart disease worse. Increased physical exertion can make cardiovascular issues more pronounced during exposure to carbon monoxide and particulate matter, which creates a perfect storm of opportunity for firefighters to be susceptible to the worst of these effects.

Inhaling smoke for even a short time can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. The odor is often nauseating. Breathing becomes more difficult. Even more serious, there is the potential for long term health effects from exposure to the various components of smoke. For example, asbestos was supposedly banned from construction in the U.S. in 1980, but it is still present, not only in older buildings but also newer construction where contractors have gotten around the regulations. Exposure to asbestos can cause various health issues, the most serious and well-known is mesothelioma, cancer of the lungs, abdomen and heart.

Common sense would indicate that exposure to smoke should be limited, but, of course, that is difficult, if not impossible, when charging into burning buildings is in your job description on your website. The more research that is done on the effects of toxic substances in smoke, the clearer the risk to firefighters.

Whenever you see a fire like the one below, please evacuate and stay safe!

What’s Causing The California Wildfires?

Wildfires move terrifyingly fast, reaching speeds of nearly 15 miles an hour. They literally consume everything in their path, including trees, brush, homes, wildlife and people. More than 100,000 wildfires rage through the U.S., on average, each year, charring and clearing between 4 and 5 million acres. In California, the hot, dry Santa Ana winds contribute to an already serious fire situation by carrying sparks for miles. There is another factor, however, that experts believe to be far more responsible for causing the wildfires in California, and that is people.

We know that wildfires can be caused by nature. Typically, depending on the location, the trigger is lightening or lava. In fact, in remote parts of the world, natural events are the prime sources of wildfires. Not true in California or the rest of the U.S. According to the National Park Service, a good estimate is that 90 percent of wildfires in the U.S. are caused by people. The exact means varies. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Campfires
  • Burning trash
  • Smoking
  • Vehicles (sparks from overheated tailpipes, dragging chains while towing, etc)
  • Kids playing with fire
  • Gunfire
  • Power tools

In California, the heat during the summer, combined with those Santa Ana winds and ongoing drought conditions make for ideal conditions for wildfires but they still require something to get them started. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) reports that, besides the above list and other, less common sparks, one in five wildfires in California is started by arson.

The motivation behind intentionally setting a fire that has the potential of taking human life and destroying vast amounts of wildlife, property and resources is unfathomable, but, whether by intent or accident, the result is the same. And it can be catastrophic. There is, however, a silver lining to this very dark cloud. Lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions are beyond our control. One day, perhaps, that will change, but no one sees it happening anytime soon. Human behavior, on the other hand, can be changed and, because it is the behavior of people that leads to the vast majority of wildfires, that means we have the ability to make positive changes.

Various organizations, like Cal Fire, are working on those changes as part of their overall mission of preventing fires. They are employing a wide range of programs that include pre-fire engineering, vegetation management, fire planning procedures and, especially, educational programs designed to increase the awareness of fire hazards and steps leading to prevention.   

The cause of wildfires and the remedy can be pretty well summed up in this statement from Cal Fire spokesman, Daniel Berlant, “Weather doesn’t cause fires–weather just causes a fire to burn. It’s the people that have the role of actually preventing that fire.”

Who is Smokey the Bear?

Smokey Bear has been educating Americans about the dangers of fires for longer than most of us have been alive. In fact, the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign of all time in the United States. Created in 1944, Smokey, usually depicted pouring a bucket of water on a campfire and admonishing that “only you can prevent forest fires” soon became recognized around the world.

But, how did Smokey Bear become Smokey the Bear? In the spring of 1950, a crew of firefighters battling a wildfire in the mountains of New Mexico were trapped by the raging fire. They survived by taking cover in a rockslide while the fire burned around them for over an hour. When it had finally passed, they discovered a small bear cub that had tried to escape the fire by climbing a tree. He was alive but badly burned. The New Mexico Department of Fish and Game heard about the cub and helped get him medical care. Even though this was nearly a half century before the birth of social media, Smokey’s story went viral. He ended up in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and became the real life Smokey Bear.

Smokey Bear had so many fans and received so much attention, including numerous gifts of honey, that the post office had to assign him his own zip code. Soon the popular song bearing his name was released by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins. And this is where Smokey Bear became Smokey the Bear — another syllable was needed here to maintain the rhythm of the chorus.

With a Ranger’s hat and shovel
and a pair of dungarees,
you will find him in the forest
always sniffin’ at the breeze.
People stop and pay attention
when he tells ’em to beware,
’cause ev’rybody knows that
he’s the Fire Prevention Bear.

Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear.
Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air.
He can find a fire before it starts to flame.
That’s why they call him Smokey,
That was how he got his name.

The advertising campaign changed through the years. Starting with “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires”, it became “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires” in 1947 and remained unchanged until 2001. Then, in response to massive outbreaks of wildfires, it was changed one more time to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires”, which is the message it presents today.

As for little Smokey Bear, he lived to a ripe old age in the National Zoo. When he died, in 1976, he was returned home to the mountains of New Mexico, and he was buried in the Smokey Bear Historical Park. His legend lives on and continues to educate and increase awareness about the dangers of wildfires and the recognition that prevention continues to be up to us.

If you would like to listen to the Smokey the Bear song, please watch the video below at full volume!

Fire Prevention Tips

Did you know that faulty electrical wiring is the most common cause of fires in the country?
Did you know that April is the month with the most fires?
Did you know that fires emit greenhouse gases?

Do you and your family have a plan in the event of a fire? The following cartoon explains some facts about fires, some safety tips that you and your family can do to help prevent fires, and what you should do if there is a fire in your home.

This video is from the United Kingdom, so please do not dial 117 in the event of an emergency. In America, we dial 911. Although a lot of people know this information, it’s always great to remind your kids about fire safety and come up with a plan.

Fire safety week is rapidly approaching and we expect all of you to be involved with these years slogan: