Firefighters monitor a fire in Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California in September 2018.

Noah Berger/AP Photo

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS3.C, ESS3.B

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 9

TEKS: Science: 3.3C, 4.3C, 5.3C, 6.3D; ELA: 3.7B, 4.7B, 5.7B, 6.12A, 6.12D

Into the Fire

Kathleen Navarro works to keep the people who fight dangerous wildfires safe

A tiny ember from a campfire gets caught in the wind. It floats to the treetops where it lights a dry branch. Soon, the whole forest is in flames. This is one way a wildfire can begin. About 85 percent of these large, destructive fires are caused by humans.

Wildfires have become more common and damaging in recent decades. In 2018, California was struck by a record 8,527 wildfires. The fast-moving flames burned nearly 2 million acres and killed 103 people.

As residents fled, specially trained firefighters known as wildland firefighters battled the blazes. They faced temperatures of up to 800°C (1,472°F) and air thick with smoke and ash. 

Wildland firefighter Kathleen Navarro knows these conditions well. In addition to fighting fires in the western U.S., she studies the disasters. Navarro wants to know how the smoke and ash they produce affect firefighters’ health. She recently spoke with SuperScience about her work.

A campfire releases a tiny ember. It gets caught in the wind. It floats to the treetops. There, it lights a dry branch. Soon, the whole forest is in flames. This is one way a wildfire can begin. These fires are large. They do a lot of damage. And people cause about 85 percent of them.

Wildfires have become more common in recent years. They’re also causing more harm. A record 8,527 wildfires struck California in 2018. The fast-moving flames burned nearly 2 million acres. They killed 103 people.

People fled the fires. But specially trained firefighters did the opposite. These wildland firefighters battled the blazes. They faced temperatures of up to 800°C (1,472°F). They also breathed air thick with smoke and ash. 

Kathleen Navarro knows these conditions well. She’s a wildland firefighter. She fights fires in the western U.S. She also studies the disasters. Navarro collects data about smoke and ash from wildfires. She wants to learn how they affect firefighters’ health. Navarro recently spoke with SuperScience about her work.

Photo Courtesy of The Hip Hop Architecture Camp

Courtesy of Kathleen Navarro

What led you to study wildfires?

I wanted to research how people’s jobs affect their health, and I wanted to work outdoors. That led me to study how smoke exposure affects firefighters.

I wanted to study how people’s jobs affect their health. And I wanted to work outdoors. That led me to study how smoke affects firefighters.

Why is smoke a concern for wildland firefighters?

Structural firefighters, who fight fires in buildings, wear masks connected to air tanks. That gives them clean air to breathe inside burning buildings.

Wildland firefighters don’t often carry air tanks. That’s because the tanks are very heavy. Wildland firefighters can work 16-hour days. As a result, they inhale large amounts of smoke. The smoke contains chemicals that can cause cancer and other diseases.

Structural firefighters fight fires in buildings. They wear masks hooked to air tanks. That gives them clean air to breathe. 

Wildland firefighters don’t often carry air tanks. That’s because the tanks are heavy. Wildland firefighters can work 16-hour days. They end up breathing in a lot of smoke. The smoke contains chemicals. They can cause cancer and other diseases. 

How do you conduct your research?

I give wildland firefighters monitoring equipment to wearon their backpacks. These devices measure the amount o dangerous chemicals in the air around them. By analyzing that data, I can better understand the risks faced by firefighters in different scenarios.

I give wildland firefighters special devices. They wear them on their backpacks. They measure the amounts of dangerous chemicals in the air during a wildfire. Then I look at the data the devices collect. I can learn the risks firefighters face in different situations.

What can wildland firefighters do to stay safer on the job?

During long shifts, wildland firefighters can rotate in and out of areas with heavy smoke. That will lower each firefighter’s smoke exposure. They should also extinguish any material that is smoldering, or slowly burning, so it doesn’t reignite after the main fire is put out.

Wildland firefighters can rotate during long shifts. Then they’ll spend less time in areas with heavy smoke. That will lower how much smoke they breathe in. They should also put out any smoldering material that’s burning slowly. Then it can’t catch fire again after the main fire is put out.

What do you love most about your job?

I would be lying if I said it wasn’t physically hard. But I love being outside to conduct my research and helping protect firefighters in the process.

I would be lying if I said it wasn’t physically hard. But I love being outside to do my research. And I love helping to protect firefighters while I do it.

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