Firefighters are now facing more fires and more toxic smoke than ever. There is now some new evidence of more poisons in the air that they breathe and even in the gear they wear.
The 2018 Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.
At its peak, 6,000 firefighters were deployed at the Camp Fire. One of them lead a 22-member crew. That was San Francisco Fire Department Battalion Chief Matt Alba.
“It was like a war zone,” he said.
When the fight was over, Alba, who is on the board of the San Francisco firefighters’ cancer prevention foundation and his crew were tested.
The results showed increased levels of toxins including heavy metals.
“I remember him saying how eerie it was,” said Sarah Alba, Matt's wife. “It was different in that way.”
Fast forward to now, Matt Alba is now recovering from brain cancer. Sometimes, his wife Sarah works with him to communicate.
No one can say for certain the toxic smoke he breathed at the Camp Fire three years ago caused the cancer, but he’s found circumstantial evidence.
"The neurosurgeon when asked, “when did the tumor start growing?” He put it at three years," Matt Alba added.
It’s long been documented that firefighters have higher rates of cancer than the general public and scientists say that’s likely to get worse.
Researchers from Stanford University’s Sean Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research are regularly testing San Francisco firefighters for toxins.
Center director Dr. Mary Prunicki said that firefighters are bearing the brunt of climate change.
“We know climate change is contributing to the increased number, duration and intensity of wildfires, without a doubt,” she said. “Wildfires are contributing more and more to pollution. The more wildfires, the more danger we’re putting our firefighters in.”
Add to that, there are far more types of poisons in the air from the new materials used in homes. Researchers are also investigating toxins coming from the very gear meant to protect firefighters.
“We are currently testing new equipment. We have a few participants in the control group, that’s also studying old turnout equipment that we’ve used in the past,” said Kailin Waterman with the San Francisco Fire Department.
Bay Area residents are also breathing smoke more often. For example, who could forget the smoke caused orange hue we woke up to last Summer?
Prunicki has done research that may be instructive to all of us.
“We have published results of teenagers exposed to wildfire smoke 60 miles away and found changes in their inflammatory markers,” she added. “So, we are pretty sure we are going to see differences pre-and post-smoke exposure in these firefighters.”
Matt Alba, who works out of San Francisco fire's station 21 on Grove Street said that Cal fire recently went to state lawmakers to ask for money for more and safer firefighting equipment. It carried a huge price tag and nothing happened.
Matt Alba told NBC Bay Area that there’s a better way.
“Legislation will force the manufacturers to produce something. So, if there’s any lawmakers out there. You know. Here is your next project,” he said.