When Halley Burkhardt and her husband returned to their apartment in Superior on Dec. 31, the day after the Marshall fire, they found a thick layer of ash had enveloped their home.
Their couch, tables, stove, windowsills, laundry machine, bed and clothes were covered in what they would soon find out was toxic ash. The Burkhardts were sick every day for the next two months they spent in their home — sore throats, headaches, burning eyes, coughs, stuffy noses. After more than a month of these symptoms, Burkhardt went to the doctor. Her prescription: Move out of your apartment. By March, the couple had moved to a new place in Westminster.
The Burkhardts were not alone. When people returned to homes that survived the Marshall fire, some of them found what University of Colorado researchers describe as “another disaster.”
The Marshall fire: One year later
It has been one year since the Marshall fire destroyed hundreds of houses and businesses in parts of Louisville, Superior and Boulder County. One year of sorting through what was lost. One year of trying to create a new normal. And one year of making a new home.
Read our series revisiting the Marshall fire one year later. >> SERIES
The researchers discovered elevated concentrations of volatile organic compounds and pollutants inside smoke-affected homes. It took four weeks for the concentration of compounds such as benzene — a carcinogen — and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both of which are known to have health effects, to decrease to normal levels, according to Joost de Gouw, professor of chemistry and fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder.
“These homes were really doused in smoke on the day of the fire, and the smoke really got into everywhere — deep into the walls and furniture and really anything. And it was really slow to come out,” de Gouw said. “That really surprised us. We would have thought that would be quicker.”
Research on the health effects of wildfires indicates acute smoke inhalation can burn and irritate airways and exacerbate lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Exposure to tiny particulates found in wildfire smoke can be particularly harmful because they can travel deep into the lungs, according to Dr. Carl White, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
There aren’t yet definitive answers to questions about the long-term health effects of a wildfire event or how many people develop lung conditions such as asthma as a result of wildfires, White said, nor is there clear research on how a wildfire may impact a child’s lung development. In the meantime, people exposed to the Marshall fire should watch for symptoms such as coughing that doesn’t go away or that rapidly becomes severe, shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain, exercise intolerance, wheezing, mucus overproduction and worsening asthma, he said.
Unlike previously researched wildfires, the Marshall fire burned artificial materials, such as electronics, vehicles and couches — objects with a lot of metals, flame retardants and other chemicals — rather than vegetation. Snow the next night helped dissipate air pollution from the fire, making it a secondary concern, said Colleen Reid, assistant professor of geography at CU.
The bigger issue was the health effects of the chemicals in the still-standing, smoke-affected homes — the chemicals such as benzene that seem to have given Burkhardt and husband headaches and congestion.
“What we learned is that the air quality issues don’t go away when the fire is out,” de Gouw said.
Reid and her colleagues have in the past year been collecting information from residents of the fire-affected areas. People reported itchy or watery eyes, headaches, dry coughs and sore throats they thought were due to smoke or air quality concerns due to the fire, Reid said.
Those who moved back into smoke-affected homes, however, reported the symptoms most often inside their homes, she said. Some reported rashes and burning sensations nine months after the fire. Nearly a year after the fire, de Gouw said, people continue to email him concerned about their health.
The good news, for now, is the previously elevated chemical concentrations are at a more normal level, de Gouw said. But that doesn’t mean there is no current health risk and many questions remain about the long-term health impacts of the Marshall fire.
In the time Burkhardt and her husband have lived in their new apartment, their symptoms have all but disappeared. They both workout regularly and eat healthy foods, but she is still worried about the long-term health effects of those two months they spent living with toxic ash.
“I’m hopeful, but honestly, a little bit (worried),” Burkhardt said. “That’s really scary to go through. I’ve lived in Colorado my whole life and had several times where it was like, ‘Oh, you should evacuate,’ but never to the point where it was ash in the home.”