A look at the Atmospheric Pollutants Caused by Forest Fires

Forest fires are always devastating and not only because of the trees that they destroy and the risk of new fires in residential areas.  The trees that burn down could have produced much oxygen later and the destruction that could happen if a fire spreads too much is horrifying.  Even if the fire isn’t huge, the smoke caused by it can cause health problems to humans and animals and it releases pollutants into the air. 

Smoke and ash is bad can cause major lung damage when breathed in.  This smog, ozone pollution, attributes to approximately 800,000 deaths every year.  It is not people who live right by where a forest burned that are at risk.  An uncontrolled fire may cause smoke to travel to areas over 5,000 kilometers away from the original fire.  This can cause a huge rise, sometimes by up to twice what it was, in ozone levels which in turn can bring global warming risks up even higher.  This may lead to a vicious cycle between global warming and forest fires; global warming makes better conditions for harder to control forest fires which provide more ozone, etc.

A new study, conducted by the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, looked at the types of molecules that can be found in smoke.  They used ponderosa pine trees in this study because these trees tend to be prevalent in forests that are more prone to be destroyed by fire.  The scientists found alkaloids in the smoke that naturally come from plants but may be poisonous to animals and humans.  There are alkaloids that are not completely bad for people’s health; some of these molecules that the common person has encountered are caffeine, morphine, and nicotine.  Some of these alkaloids are good for the environment though.  Many carry nitrogen to the atmosphere and help form less acidic clouds which is important to safe water supplies and agriculture.  During controlled fires, people living upwind of the work and other people who might be exposed to this smoke should be considered as more alkaloids are produced during a smoldering blaze than a full-fledged fire.

Despite the pollutants released, planning controlled fires can be very important.  This process of hazard reduction burning helps prevent worse unpredictable forest fires from happening by burning excess fuel ahead of time.  Planned fires help reduce diseases in trees, keeps the population of competitive plants down, and improve grazing areas for the wildlife.  These fires will also provide an avenue for some coniferous tree species to germinate.  When people are informed and strong precautions are taken, controlled burning can help produce more nitrogen for better water, renew forests, and prevent more forest fires later.