Tubbs Fire Left Firefighters With High Toxin Levels, Study Shows

Meanwhile, San Francisco is rethinking emergency plans for bad air quality.

People wear masks in San Francisco in November 2018 during a 13-day run of bad air days. (Photo by Kevin N. Hume)

Firefighters who fought California’s second most destructive wildfire in 2017 had increased levels of toxins that could expose them to diseases down the line, according to a study released Tuesday.

Until Paradise’s Camp Fire left 85 people dead in 2018, the Tubbs Fire was the state’s most destructive wildfire. The North Bay fire set off in October 2017, eventually killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,000 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties.

The San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation surveyed about 150 firefighters on the front lines three weeks after they returned, finding increased levels of mercury and perfluoroalkyl, which is found in firefighter gear and foams. UC Berkeley researcher Rachel Morello-Frosch compared those blood and urine samples to 30 firefighters who were not assigned to the Tubbs fire, preliminarily finding lower levels of the toxins in the latter group, Bay City News reports.

“These can build up in a firefighter’s system and make them sick in the long run,” San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson said. “Either cancer or some other disease.”

Results are still pending for firefighters who fought the Camp Fire and who also gave samples — a practice Morello-Frosch hopes to become a regular. Firefighters face a higher risk of cancer, which the country may better track once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launches a voluntary registry.

But the study raises another question for San Francisco firefighters who are called to California’s increasingly destructive wildfires: what equipment will prevent these toxin exposures while allowing firefighters to effectively and safely do their jobs? Firefighters cannot use all their usual gear, like oxygen tanks, in a wildfire environment in order to stay mobile. On the other hand, wildfires are entering urban environments that burn homes and send chemicals into the air.

“Increasingly, urban firefighters are being called on to do mutual aid, and very often without the personal protective equipment that they are accustomed to using in urban settings,” Morello-Frosch said.

Though firefighters undoubtedly bear the brunt of toxic fumes, the problem isn’t so distant for San Franciscans who breathed unhealthy air for 13 days straight during the Camp Fire. The city was criticized for not having an adequate safety response, like handing out N95 masks, especially for homeless people and visitors and is now revisiting emergency plans.

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