Colorado Wildfires: Dangers of Smoke Inhalation for Residents and Firefighters

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Wildfires can cause serious injuries. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Wildfires can cause serious injuries. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

The forest fires in Colorado have affected about 38,000 people and 13,000 homes. So far, 360 homes have been destroyed, as the fire doubled in size on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, according to Fox News.

The fire will most likely continue for at least a few more days as temperatures are forecasted to be in the 90’s, with winds up to 30 mph. Thankfully, no one has been injured – however, what about the firefighters battling the blaze, and the residents that are evacuating (or sticking with their homes) and breathing in the smoke – are they at risk for injury?

Smoke Inhalation Deaths

According to the National Fire Protection Agency, most fire deaths are due to the inhalation of smoke – not burns. Researchers in an article entitled, “Pathophysiology, management and treatment of smoke inhalation” report that smoke inhalation is generally defined as, “the inhalation of thermal or chemical irritants.”

More than 23,000 injuries and 50,000 to 100,000 deaths per year in the United States, smoke inhalation represents a major risk of morbidity and mortality to burn patients.

Treating patients with smoke inhalation is not easy and comes with some difficult decisions. On the scene, firefighters will give patients 100 percent oxygen via a facemask; firefighters will then assess whether the patient has been exposed to an inhalation injury.

These symptoms include burns to the neck and or face, coughing up soot, difficulty breathing, having a blueish tint to the skin, unconsciousness, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.

Once the firefighter assesses injury levels are assessed, they have to decide the best method of opening the airway. Inserting a tube into the windpipe (intubating) on the scene can result in further injury, but it’s harder to successfully intubate as time goes on. If the victim has facial and/or neck burns along with a smoke inhalation injury, intubation is likely, but those with only inhalation injures may be able to wait. When patients are in the hospital, treatment for burns and smoke inhalation begins, typically with antibiotics to prevent injury infection, and bronchodilators, which increase air flow to the lungs.

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