…cogitations on calamities, cataclysms and catastrophes, preventing, preparing and pulling through


May is Wildfire Awareness Month and Northwest Missouri recently experienced the first wildfire of the spring. A fast spreading fire burned across the Buchanan and Platte county lines on April 11th before crews from eight different fire departments were able to contain it. As a state, Missouri, as of this writing, has had below average rainfall in the first quarter of 2024. Conditions are ripe for more possible wildfires to come.

Since the beginning of recorded human history, fire has been a terror and a tool.  The Ancient Greeks believed that fire and the knowledge of its uses was a gift from the Titan Prometheus. They learned to harness its power to provide heat and light and a means to cook food. Greek civilization flourished and is a major contributor to world culture today from our languages to architecture to the concept of democracy.  In the thousands of years passed since the Greeks tamed fire, we have developed new ways to use fire to bring us the same light and heat the Greeks needed to thrive.  In many parts of the world, coal burning power generation plants provide us with the electricity we use to light our cities and homes, warm us in the winter, cool us in the summer, store our food safely and cook it, and power the many devices we use throughout our days and evenings for work, play and travel. In Missouri, 66% of our power comes from coal-fired power plants.

While we have more experience and knowledge of structure fires in our area (recently 3 houses burned in the Kansas City metro within 18 hours), it is worth noting that wildfires do happen and have effects even in urban areas untouched by flames. The Buchanan/Platte fire sent clouds of smoke to blanket the Kansas City metro. Smoke from wildfires from as far away as Oklahoma and even Canada in recent years has blown over Northwest Missouri and given us hazy skies, beautiful sunsets and breathing problems for the susceptible. The particulates in smoke can also leave an unsightly and toxic layer of dirt on our buildings and cars and contribute to very low quality indoor and outdoor air.  Most healthy adults and children recover quickly from smoke exposure but some at-risk people may have an even greater risk of severe symptoms and also chronic ones from wildfire smoke exposure. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the health effects can vary throughout a person’s lifetime “generally being higher during early childhood, lower in healthy adolescents and younger adults, and increasing during middle age through old age as the incidence of heart and lung disease, hypertension and diabetes increases. Therefore, certain life stages and populations (e.g., people with pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease) should be particularly diligent about taking precautions to limit exposure to wildfire smoke.” (Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials, August 2019)

What to do?

While not breathing would be an effective way to avoid illness from wildfire smoke, for obvious reasons, it is not a good plan. A better plan is to keep windows and doors shut as much as possible. Use high-quality HEPA filters (look for a minimum of MERV 13 rating), in heating and air conditioning systems and make sure that your system is set to recirculate, if you have a newer system that brings in outdoor air. Use room air purifiers that have HEPA filters, the machines themselves have gone down in cost through the years but the replaceable filters can get expensive. Shop carefully. Keep your car windows shut and run your AC on “recirculate”. For those who are very susceptible or have to spend time outdoors, (people with asthma and allergy sufferers, people who work outside especially), wear a NIOSH-certified N95 or P100 respirator that fits correctly, disposable or reusable. Dust masks and surgical masks will not work for smoke. Find indoor activities for children if there is smoke in the air. Children playing outside tend to breath more deeply than adults and will inhale more particulates from smoke, possibly causing illness.  Pregnant ladies should limit their smoke exposure as much as possible because wildfire smoke, similar to cigarette smoke, can cause low birthweight.

Remember Smokey Bear? The famed mascot of the U.S. Forest Service has been teaching wildfire prevention since 1944. Though Smokey’s focus is on wildfire prevention in “forests and other woodlands”, the principles advocated are universal.  Rather than list them all here, I refer you to the U.S. Forest Service Smokey Bear webpage that is loaded with practical and easy ways to exercise outdoor fire safety.


Smokey Bear poster, used with permission from the USDA U.S. Forest Service and the National Symbols Cache, Ad Council

Taking a step back

We have established that avoiding wildfire (or any) smoke exposure is important. Wouldn’t it be great though, if there was no wildfire smoke? Did you know that in 2023 nearly 57,000 wildfires burned in the United States? According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 90 percent of those fires were caused by humans.  90%!! We should and can do better.  In addition to tips from Smokey Bear, there are a few very easy things we can do in order to avoid setting an accidental fire.  Keep in mind, the below tips are the minimums, local fire departments are an excellent resource for more detailed recommendations on all things fire safety.

Fully extinguish smoking materials whether you are indoors or out! Smash the lit ends of those cigarettes, cigars and other smoking materials in an ashtray until there is absolutely no smoke or red coal visible anywhere. Better yet, when you are finished, dip the lit end of your smoking material in a small cup of water to instantly extinguish it.

Never light up the grill inside or within 15 feet of any structure or wooden fence! Grills should be on level pavement or brick, never on wood decking or grass or directly under tree branches or power lines. Keep a bucket of sand or a large container of baking soda near you for extinguishing grease fires and a bucket of water or a water hose nearby in case of flyaway sparks. Never leave your grill unattended, even with the lid closed. On very windy days, consider an alternative means for cooking.

Don’t let your yard dry out!  Dry grass, dead branches and brush piles can catch fire easily from a stray spark.  Hopefully you will have enough rain to take care of your grass, otherwise try setting up a rain barrel or two to use for watering grass and gardens.  (Page 13-15 of this KCMO Stormwater booklet has very good information on acquiring or making your own rain barrel).

Trim shrubs, bushes and trees of any dry, dead parts. Especially trim any shrubs or bushes near a house or any wooden structure such as a fence, shed or deck. Remove any brush piles or store them far away from any structures.

Summing it all up

The ancient Greeks tamed fire, learned its many uses and put it to work; but tamed does not mean always safe. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides mentions the accidental burning of a temple when the priestess placed her torch too near some garlands and dozed off. I encourage you to be vigilant around fire, cautious when using it as a tool or for ambiance, and remember the words of Smokey Bear: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

By Shayna Deitchman, Americorps Disaster Case Manager #DisasterServicesCCKCSJ #ItHappensCCKCSJ

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