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New survey seeks to aid development of wildland firefighter respirator

The West has faced years of devastating drought, increasingly destructive wildfires and widespread exposure to toxic smoke.
The West has faced years of devastating drought, increasingly destructive wildfires and widespread exposure to toxic smoke.

Wildland firefighters arguably breathe more wildfire smoke than anybody else, but most do not have access to respirators.

A new survey seeks to inform policymakers and manufacturers about ways to better protect firefighter health.

Matt Rahn is executive director of the non profit Wildfire Conservancy, which is running the survey. He was frank about the hazards firefighters face, especially in the wildland-urban interface, where blazes can consume homes and vehicles.

“Our firefighters are now being exposed to some of the most toxic, hazardous and carcinogenic environments on the planet,” he said. “And unfortunately, right now, there is no genuine respiratory protection that's being provided to the firefighters to be able to use.”

The survey asks current and former wildland firefighters about their attitudes toward respiratory protection. It also asks how different technologies – from face masks to self-contained breathing apparatuses – might fare in their hostile work environment.

“[Who] we're trying to really inform are our decision-makers, and the manufacturers of the different technologies,” Rahn said. “What works, you know, in the minds of these firefighters. Where do you think the barriers are to adoption and implementation and how do we overcome those?”

He added, “There's not a lot that you can do to keep [firefighters] out of the smoke and keep them out of harm's way. They go into this job knowing the risks and willingly accept those risks, but we have to simply do better for our firefighters to give them better tools to protect them from these environments.”

The Wildfire Conservancy had been hoping for 500 responses to its survey, but cleared 1,000 this week. The survey will remain open into September.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Murphy Woodhouse