Major wildfire sparks concerns about health effects of smoke

Wildfire shut down I-95 in Duval, Nassau counties for over 19 hours

Photo does not have a caption

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 450-acre wildfire burning near the Duval-Nassau County Line that shut down Interstate 95 in both directions for more than 19 hours also had residents in the area concerned about the effects the smoke could have on their health.

The National Weather Service Jacksonville said Friday that a dense smoke advisory remained in effect around the Yellow Bluff Fire, which closed all lanes of I-95 from I-295 in North Jacksonville to State Road 200 in Yulee for over 19 hours.

Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases, NWS Jacksonville said.

"The smoke (is) starting to come our way. It’s starting to affect our breathing a little bit, but we’re doing fine," said Duval County property owner Earl Allen, who was surveying his land Thursday after the Yellow Bluff Fire tore through about 40 acres.

IMAGES: Wildfire burning near Nassau-Duval County line |
RELATED: Steps to prevent, protect your home from wildfires

The Florida Highway Patrol is monitoring the conditions in the area and warned drivers that visibility may deteriorate quickly due to fog and smoke-type conditions. FHP spokesman Sgt. Dylan Bryan said Friday that visibility had dropped to just 40 yards.

Drivers are urged to slow down, use caution and turn on low-beam headlights.

"If you come into an area of low visibility -- whether it’s fog, smoke or something like that -- the rules of the road still apply. You’ve got to maintain proper control of your vehicle, be observant while driving, reduce your speed and utilize your headlights and just drive as safe as possible," Bryan said. "Absolutely (turn your headlights on) because visibility is reduced. Not only can you see a little bit better, everybody else can see you, as well. With that being said, we use low-beam headlights. We don’t use emergency flashers when the vehicle is in motion. So utilize low-beam headlights and drive cautiously through the area."

Why wildfire smoke makes you sick

Wildfire smoke includes particles from burning vegetation and building materials mixed with gases. If your eyes feel like they're stinging, smoke exposure could also be inflicting other damage. Particles could be getting into your respiratory system.

Exposure can cause chest pain, a fast heartbeat or wheezing or bring on an asthma attack. Besides coughing and trouble breathing, many people experience symptoms similar to a sinus infection, such as headaches, sore throat, a runny nose and even tiredness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wildfire smoke can be especially harmful to the elderly, pregnant women, children and those with chronic heart and lung diseases. Because children breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults and their airways are still developing, they may experience more severe symptoms.

Those with asthma or lung disease should consult their doctors about navigating situations like this. Some people may even experience illnesses like bronchitis due to the fine particles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Staying healthy when it's smoky

If you see a haze or smell smoke, check the Air Quality Index to see whether you need to limit your time outdoors.

AQI for Jacksonville | AQI for Nassau County

When advised to stay inside, keep your windows and doors closed. It's OK to keep the air conditioner running, but make sure the filter is clean, and close the fresh-air intake to prevent smoke from entering, according to the CDC.

It's also important to keep indoor air clean by not burning candles, using the fireplace or gas stoves, or smoking. Running a vacuum can also keep particles circulating in the air.

Dust masks actually trap large particles and don't protect your lungs from smoke inhalation, but a mask that uses a filtering respirator can offer some protection. The CDC also has tips for how effective different types of masks can be, depending on your exposure.

Even if the air outside or in your home looks clear, it may not be free of harmful microscopic particles, especially if the wildfires and smoke persist for weeks.

Pediatric pulmonologists at Children's Hospital Colorado's Breathing Institute also recommend changing your clothes if you've been outside, rinsing out red, irritated eyes and drinking fluids to keep from being dehydrated. Parents should seek emergency care for their children if they experience real difficulty breathing or a change in their level of consciousness.

There is a low risk of long-term effects of wildfire smoke exposure for healthy individuals.

About the Author: