As the Rim Fire south of South Lake Tahoe pours smoke into the area, doctors are seeing immediate health effects on people with respiratory problems such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The South Shore area was designated “unhealthy” air quality Wednesday and Thursday morning with an air quality index maximum of 182 but, before 5 p.m. Thursday, the air quality was downgraded to “unhealthy for sensitive groups” at about 114, according to El Dorado Air Quality Management District officials.
In the Reno-Sparks, Nev. area, the air quality was designated “hazardous” Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. Withers said the effects on people in those conditions would be about the same as “unhealthy,” just more intense.
The Rim Fire is about 60 miles from South Lake Tahoe. As of 5:15 p.m. Thursday, the fire was 192,737 acres large and 30 percent contained.
Dr. Warren Withers, Barton Health Systems director of emergency medical services in South Lake Tahoe, said the number of people coming to medical facilities with respiratory problems has been four to five times more than normal.
Withers said Barton’s emergency department usually have a total of one or two people come into the emergency room each day during the later weeks of summer. Now, the hospital is treating between five and 10 people each day.
“We’re seeing a huge spike in people who are coming in with problems,” Withers said. “This is usually the best time because it’s not spring; there’s no pollen in the air; and it’s not winter, so they’re not getting sick.”
On Thursday, Withers said the number of people had started to return to normal.
“If you’re someone who has (respiratory) problems, you’re going to have a problem,” Withers said.
People who said they never have breathing issues also have reported symptoms, he said, but the chance of a long-term health problem developing from the smoke is unlikely. Withers said it would take about a six-month to year-long smog to cause long-term health problems.
“The biggest problem is when there are particulates in the air,” Withers said. “The particles fly through the air and they land in your lungs, which can cause a bronchospasm — that is basically asthma and can trigger a problem in anyone.”
Ash falling from the sky also causes these symptoms, he said.
Beth Brown, nursing director for the emergency department for Barton Memorial Hospital, said people don’t breathe the ash in, just as people don’t breathe in snowflakes falling in similar patterns, but the ash does signify much thicker smoke and less oxygen in the area.
Additional health effects have not yet been reported in the emergency room at Barton Memorial Hospital, Withers said, such as eye irritation or other problems. No casualties from the smoke have been reported by the hospital.
Withers stated in an email Thursday that people who use an inhaler for respiratory conditions need to ensure they have adequate supplies. He said it is imperative that people with respiratory problems keep their inhaler or medication with them at all times when going outdoors.
“Lately, we are seeing patients who have either run out of their medications or are waiting until they have a problem before refilling their medications,” Withers stated, adding if people don’t think their medication is working, they should go to the emergency department because “breathing problems are easier to treat in the early stages.”
Children and elderly people also are more vulnerable to smoke, he said.
Shane Snyder, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno, Nev., said winds during the summer from the location of the Rim Fire to the Lake Tahoe and Reno are typically move south to southwest in the morning and evenings.
However, because of the strength of the fire, it has pushed smoke and ash in a northeastern direction.