OnAir@AAAR: Wildfire sparks idea in EPA scientist

Bob Devlin was 100 miles away from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge when he looked out a window and noticed something strange.

The thick smog he noticed that day in the summer of 2008 appeared suspicious because it wasn’t smog… it was smoke.

Though far removed, Devlin caught a firsthand glimpse of the smoke plume emanating from a huge wildfire that ravaged over 30,000 acres of eastern North Carolina.

“That was the day that started it all,” Devlin said Wednesday at the AAAR conference.

After the fire, he quickly banded together a large group of scientists to collaborate on an innovative project. He sought to not only study the health effects of such a large fire, but to do so in a way that communities and states could mimic cheaply and easily during future wildfire events.

Using satellite imagery, Devlin and his colleagues looked at every North Carolina county that was covered in smoke during the three worst days of the fire. They also collected easily accessible data on daily emergency room visits during the worst fire days.

Devlin found significant spikes in emergency room visits for asthma, heart failure, arrhythmia, and pneumonia in counties that were covered in smoke during the worst wildfire days.

The data is unique for two reasons. It is the first time such associations between wildfire pollution and emergency room visits due to cardiovascular problems have been made (previously, only respiratory effects were reported). It is also one of the first case studies of a peat fire, which, in contrast to a normal wildfire, emits pollution particles closer to the ground where people may more readily inhale them.

While the findings are interesting in their own right, the larger significance of the study lies in the ability of the public health community to replicate Devlin’s analysis cheaply, easily, and without sophisticated statistical methods.

“Anybody can access these satellite images, count up the counties covered in smoke, and look at emergency room visits,” Devlin explained.

“In the future, public health officials can use this method to make decisions… [they can decide] for example, whether elderly people should be removed from the path of wildfire smoke.”

The next step, Devlin said, is to continue analysis of the 2008 fire by incorporating data on actual hospital admissions.

For an abstract of Devlin’s work, visit

About the Author: Becky Fried is a science writer with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. Her OnAir posts are a regular “Science Wednesday” feature.