Wildfire smoke can drift for hundreds of miles, hurting health

Oct. 26, 2013 at 9:38 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- Smoke from U.S. wildfires can drift for hundreds of miles and hurt the health of millions, an environmental group says.

A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, based on smoke data from the 2011 wildfire season -- one of the worst in recent decades -- found the area affected by smoke was 50 times greater than the area burned by fire.

About two-thirds of Americans -- nearly 212 million people -- live in counties affected by smoke conditions in 2011. Many states had large wildfires in 2011, but the study found among the top 20 most affected states, six with no major fires had to cope with more than a week of medium- to high-density smoke conditions during the year that can increase health risks including asthma attacks, pneumonia, heart attacks and chronic lung diseases, the report said.

The states with the greatest numbers of residents affected by wildfire smoke conditions for a week or longer in 2011 were Texas, Illinois, Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Alabama, Oklahoma and Iowa, the report said.

"What blazes in Texas rarely stays in Texas. Wildfire smoke can pose serious health risks to people hundreds of miles away from the sources of fires," Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist in NRDC's Health and Environment Program, who directed the analysis, said in a statement. "Wildfire smoke already clouds the skies of millions of Americans and because climate change will fuel more wildfires, that danger will rise."

Texas ranked first nationally in 2011 with more than 25 million people living in areas with wildfire smoke conditions for one week or more. Illinois was second with 11.9 million, followed by Florida (11.2 million), Missouri (5.9 million) and Georgia (5.7 million). Louisiana sixth, followed by Michigan, Alabama, Oklahoma and Iowa.

Other states where large numbers of people live in areas with smoky conditions include are: Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, Tennessee, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Indiana, South Carolina and Minnesota.

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