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Feb/Mar 2014 Issue
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When wildfires burned through Waldo Canyon in the mountainous area near Colorado Springs in June 2012, Nicole Smith, a children’s book author and creator of AllergicChild.com, faced the possibility that she could lose her home. But she was especially concerned about the health of her son Morgan, who has multiple food, environmental and pet allergies, along with asthma.
Both Smith and her husband were downtown at work when the fire threat quickly escalated, resulting in an emergency evacuation of her neighborhood. Morgan, who was 16 at the time, could see ash falling from the sky as he followed Twitter updates and watched a news conference on TV quickly end because the fire was getting too close. Smith was stuck in heavy traffic driving into red ash from the fire as she tried to get home to her son and husband, who were already packing the car with clothing, medication and coolers of food. The three wore medical masks to try to keep ash out of their lungs. As they drove away, Smith watched Morgan closely to make sure he was breathing normally.
“I was so concerned about his asthma,” Smith says. “He was wide-eyed, just like me. To see these gorgeous mountains with tendrils of flames come down them, it was just horrifying.”
There were no hotels available and they didn’t want to expose Morgan to the risk of unsafe food at emergency shelters. They’d also heard that pets were allowed in most shelters, an unhealthy situation for Morgan, given his pet allergies and asthma.
It’s important to communicate medical and dietary needs when registering at a shelter, says Casey-Lockyer at the American Red Cross. If a person has celiac disease, for example, shelter staff can secure gluten-free food for that individual. During recent disasters, shelter managers have tried to create peanut-free zones for those with peanut allergy, she says.
Red Cross-managed shelters accept service animals and often provide a co-located pet shelter for family pets. Because the shelters are usually in large buildings, such as gymnasiums, a person with a pet allergy could be placed on a separate side of the gymnasium from someone with a service animal, she says. But other shelters may have different safety procedures.
Escaping the wildfire, Smith and her family decided to stay at her mother’s home, located about four miles east in an area of Colorado Springs that wasn’t being evacuated. They had packed plenty of safe food and upon arrival, they washed all the pans and dishes in her mother’s kitchen to ward off cross-contamination. But the intense heat, along with smoky haze in the air, combined to make a dangerous situation for Morgan. There was no air conditioning in the home and opening windows was out of the question, given the smoke outside.
The American Lung Association recommends that people with asthma or other respiratory conditions try to avoid the high level of air pollutants during a wildfire by staying inside with all doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and clean air circulating through an air conditioner. The association also urges patients to closely monitor breathing, follow an asthma action plan and consult a physician if experiencing symptoms.
A day after evacuating, Morgan woke up saying, “It feels like someone is sitting on my chest.” He didn’t have a nebulizer with him when they evacuated, only the low dose of asthma medication he takes on a daily basis for what had been termed “mild” asthma. He doesn’t generally carry an emergency or rescue inhaler, only an epinephrine auto-injector that he keeps because of his food allergies.
Smith learned that wildfire conditions could exacerbate even mild asthma. “None of this was on my radar. It was mild asthma,” she says. “We really learned a lot. Keep the nebulizer. Keep the rescue inhaler.”
She took Morgan to a local doctor’s office, where he received breathing treatments and prescriptions for medication. Smith also called their insurance company to approve the purchase of a room air conditioner for the house where they were staying.
After a few days, Smith and her family returned to their home. They discovered that a fine, black ash had seeped into their house when they were loading their cars before evacuating. They spent the next day washing down all the surfaces and walls, along with replacing the air filters that the smoky air had turned black.
A year later, when winds blew smoke from a nearby wildfire in her home’s direction, Smith kept Morgan inside with his inhaler next to him and monitored his breathing with a peak flow meter.
“We learned that maybe some of that mild asthma is a misnomer when air quality is so poor. Our experience the summer before gave us a heightened sense of awareness,” Smith says. “I knew families who just picked up and stayed in someone’s house and ate whatever food was there. It was like a big sleepover. Families with food allergies and asthma need to make massive preparation.”
Past blizzards had taught Smith how to keep her family safe and fed during a storm. She always has 72 hours worth of food in the house and she keeps medications up to date and in one location so they can be easily grabbed if the family must leave the house quickly. She also has a kit that contains items like passports, a safe deposit box key, immunization records, a list of account numbers and cash.
The city’s reverse 911 feature had alerted Smith and her family that it was time to leave their home during the wildfire. They also had signed up to their local news station’s alert system for text messages with weather warnings in their area. It was the smoke’s impact on Morgan’s asthma that took Smith by surprise.