FIRE & SMOKE
May 22, 1998
The recent fires in Mexico have left Texas in a smokey haze. Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Boradcasting reports on the fires of Mexico
LEE HOCHBERG: The beaches in Galveston, Texas were quiet this week, despite 90 degree temperatures. The sky was an eerie hazy gray, a smoky reminder of the thousands of fires burning to the South in Mexico and Central America. All week Texas has been under a health alert, the state urging residents to avoid outdoor activity. The forecast for Memorial Day weekend—normally one of Galveston’s biggest tourist weekends—is for more smoke. Merchants, like Steve Tejani, are rankled.
STEVE TEJANI, Merchant: Not too many tourists come down here. They stay inside. And this has been going on for a while now—the smoke. We were hoping it would clear up, but it’s coming back again.
LEE HOCHBERG: The fires began last month. Ten thousand are raging across Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Farmers started most of them, burning overgrown croplands for spring planting, but El-Nino driven El Nino-driven wind and heat fanned them out of control. Mexican officials say drug traffickers have worsened the situation, intentionally setting blazes to force soldiers, who normally work on drug interdiction, to work, instead, as firefighters. More than a million acres of agricultural and forest lands are charred. At least 50 firefighters have died, and 50 million Mexicans are living under a choking veil of smoke and cinders. The smoke cloud in the U.S. changes from day to day. But it's been the heaviest in Texas. Visibility last week dropped to a quarter mile in Houston. Austin’s landmark UT Tower disappeared in brown haze. In the Rio Grande Valley cotton leaves grew larger, straining for a peak of sunshine, which they need to grow. State officials said the smoke doesn’t seem to contain dangerous chemicals, but breathing it could be unhealthy for children, the elderly, and those with respiratory problems. State environmental chief Barry McBee.
BARRY MC BEE, Chairman, Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission: And what we’re seeing is the typical forest fire smoke. It is something that at the right levels and concentrations can have some health impact.
LEE HOCHBERG: The state urged those at risk to stay indoors, and many schools kept children inside all week. Still, Texas doctors and hospitals have been unusually busy. Austin physician Donald Counts.
DR. DONALD COUNTS, Family Practitioner: I’ve seen an increase in sinusitis, bronchitis, allergic type symptoms, maybe 20 percent more people coming in with upper respiratory tract symptomtologies, runny nose and coughing, and irritable eyes, and that sort of thing.
LEE HOCHBERG: County hospitals in Houston reported an increase in the number of indigent patients, perhaps people without air conditioning, checking in and needing ventilators. Critics charge Texas health officials reacted too slowly to the crisis. The health alert—issued a week ago—came a full five days after the smoke buildup began. The Sierra Club’s Neil Carman used to be a state air pollution inspector. He says tiny particulates in the city’s smoke have been found in other cases to cause increased mortality rates.
NEIL CARMAN, Sierra Club: The cost maybe much higher rates of premature deaths from heart attacks, respiratory failures, because people who are susceptible to this kind of pollution were not warned in advance about how bad the pollution was outside. The state’s failure to act may have contributed to the premature deaths of many people.
LEE HOCHBERG: State Environmental Chief McBee agrees the state was slow to react but says there’s no evidence that any Texan has died or been seriously harmed by exposure to the smoke.
BARRY MC BEE: The extent of that smoke is something I think no one anticipated, and that is where I think the fact that this is a once in fifty year or once in a century occurrence caught us by surprise. And I will readily admit that. I think that we should not be faulted for that. I will defend what we have done and I think with great confidence. We have given, I think, the best advice that we could, and it’s been good advice to people of our state.
SPOKESMAN: For this weekend we’re going to be watching for the smoke to be coming up towards Texas, and we expect that it could arrive in the Texas coast as early as Saturday. And it would spread across much of the state by Sunday.
LEE HOCHBERG: With temperatures unseasonably hot this week in Texas, there’s a new concern. Ozone levels are building in Houston and other cities, and it’s unclear what health effects that mixture of ozone and the new smoke may have. University of Texas Pulmonologist Richard Castriotta.
DR. RICHARD CASTRIOTTA, Pulmonologist, University of Texas Medical Center: There is concern that the addition of high ozone levels to the fine particulate matter from the smoke might result in a synergistic effect or combined action of the two to produce inflammation in the lung, but we do not know that yet.
LEE HOCHBERG: The Memorial Day weekend smoke is not expected to be the last Texans see of the Central American fires. There’s a chance they will last throughout the summer.