Santa Fe National Forest officials announced in March they were suspending intentionally set fires during the COVID-19 outbreak. The reason given was to protect the public from the hazardous effects of smoke that could “further endanger at-risk members of our communities” during the pandemic.
This was the right decision, since smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect the immune system and make you more prone to being infected with the coronavirus.
But these same officials now plan to resume burning this winter, despite the fact COVID-19 cases are not only still with us but are widespread in the community. In addition, private parties will join in burning thousands more acres this winter (“Prescribed burns planned for 7,400 acres across Northern New Mexico,” Nov. 29). It makes no sense to resume burning now, when the health risk from COVID-19 has increased exponentially.
The public has been doing its part to reduce the spread of the coronavirus by staying home, wearing masks and social distancing. The Forest Service and others must do their part as well. Instead, they want to put lives at risk, while ordinary people are sacrificing every day to protect public health.
The adverse impacts of smoke have real-world consequences. A friend of mine in her mid-70s suffers from asthma and numerous other medical problems. When exposed to smoke, including that from forest fires, she experiences a burning sensation in her nose and lungs, a severe headache, fatigue and has difficulty breathing.
This is not unusual. According to Santa Fe physician Erica Elliott, common symptoms of exposure to smoke include exacerbation of asthma, chronic cough, headaches, sinus congestion and fatigue that is not relieved with rest.
Even exposure to poor air quality for a short time is associated with an increased risk of developing COVID-19 and/or having a more severe case. Research into other viral infections shows that just two hours of exposure to smoke can make people more susceptible to respiratory infections.
Smoke from forest fires, whether intentionally set or naturally occurring, is hazardous even without the threat of COVID-19. Smoke often contains high levels of microscopic particles capable of lodging deep in the lungs and entering the bloodstream, contributing to respiratory diseases such as asthma and emphysema, cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke, and other health conditions, including harm to pregnant women and fetuses. The American Lung Association warns that children, older adults and those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and bronchitis, chronic heart disease or diabetes are at elevated risk from smoke exposure.
Maintaining clean air during COVID-19 has other important health and economic benefits. The safest way to socialize is outdoors, but not if the air is laden with smoke. And during this time when many are isolated at home, it is critical for mental health to be able to go outside to exercise, walk the dog, see other humans or be in nature. Restaurants, ski resorts and other businesses that can operate outdoors also rely on clean air. No one is going to sit down at an outside cafe table when the air smells like a chimney.
The Forest Service needs to return to its initial commitment to protect public health by maintaining its moratorium on planned burning during the pandemic. Others should also rethink their plans to burn. We all need to pull together to get through this unprecedented time. Burning during COVID-19 is not worth the risk.
Please call Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other elected officials and urge them to use their emergency powers to stop hazardous burning.