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After devastating loss of life and property, here comes another hit from California wildfires

The wildfires have ripped through the town of Paradise, California, and have destroyed 140,000 acres, leaving behind burned neighborhoods. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The fallout from the California wildfires has already caused devastating losses and now here comes another problem: serious future health problems.

What are the risks?

Dr. Wayne Cascio, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cardiologist, told The Associated Press that the increasing frequency of large wildland fires, urban expansion into wooded areas, and an aging population are all increasing the number of people at risk for health problems from large wildfires.

Children, the elderly, and people with existing health conditions face the greatest risk. Even short-term exposure to the smoke can aggravate existing asthma and lung disease to the point where an emergency room visit or hospitalization is in order. Doctor visits or hospital treatment for respiratory infections, bronchitis and pneumonia in otherwise healthy people also increase during and after wildfires, the report states. There are also reported increases in ER visits for heart attacks and strokes in people with existing heart disease.

During the so-called fire season, firefighters can experience decreased lung function, which can clear up after fire season is over. But federal legislation this year seeks to establish a U.S. registry that will track firefighters and their risk for developing lung cancer and other cancers.

The healthiest people are likely to experience symptoms that are more irritating than harmful: burning eyes, scratchy throats, or chest discomfort, all of which can disappear after the smoke clears. But even they worry about the potential health risks. Many impacted by fires are wearing smoke masks, using eye drops, and refraining from outdoor exercise, the report states.

Part of the problem stems from chemicals released by burning wood.

“Wood smoke contains some of the same toxic chemicals as urban air pollution, along with tiny particles of vapor and soot 30 times thinner than a human hair," according to the report. “These can infiltrate the bloodstream, potentially causing inflammation and blood vessel damage even in healthy people, research on urban air pollution has shown. Studies have linked heart attacks and cancer with long-term exposure to air pollution.”

The long-term effects from exposure to the smoke is difficult to track.

“Very little is known about the long-term effects of wildfire smoke because it’s hard to study populations years after a wildfire,” Dr. John Balmes, a University of California, San Francisco, professor of medicine who studies air pollution, told the AP.

What’s the current status?

At least 56 people have died in the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest on record and one of its most destructive. The fire ripped through the town of Paradise and has destroyed 140,000 acres. About 300 people are still unaccounted for in that fire, which is about 40 percent contained.

The Woolsey Fire that is affecting parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties and has killed at least three people. The Woolsey Fire is about 57 percent contained, as of Thursday morning.

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