PORTLAND, Ore. -- The family of a Eugene wildland firefighter who died from pneumonia Monday hopes all agencies start requiring medical checkups before releasing firefighters home from duty, and medical experts are weighing in.
“Coming off the line, if he just would have had a doctor or some kind of medical specialist check him out, I think they would have sent him directly to the hospital,” Chris Aarseth said to KGW.
Chris’ son, 20-year-old Eric Aarseth, passed away at Riverbend Hospital in Springfield after he caught pneumonia and developed severe complications.
Eric worked on a hand crew for Miller Timber Services and battled the Garner Complex fires and the Horns Mountain Fire in Washington.
His parents said that soon after he got back from the fire lines, he was found unconscious by his roommates. He was taken to the hospital, but the infection caused brain damage, and his parents made the tough choice of taking him off life support.
At this time, KEZI 9 News is unsure of when Eric contracted pneumonia.
Dr. Albert Rizzo, a senior medical advisor for the American Lung Association, said breathing wildfire smoke can cause serious health issues, including pneumonia.
“Irritation of the bronchial tubes leads to inflammation and mucus and inability to clear secretion of the lung easily, which means you get set up to have an increased number of pneumonia that may occur,” Rizzo said.
It's not uncommon for wildland fighters to spend up to 16 hours a day for up to two weeks on the front lines of a fire.
Symptoms of pneumonia can include a cough with phlegm, fever and loss of appetite, among others. Rizzo said people who experience the symptoms for 12 hours or more should see a doctor, and firefighters should take it seriously.
“It's important to get wildfires under control and manpower can be an issue,” Rizzo said. “But I think those kinds of precautions might be helpful in a situation where they will linger and a person goes back out there when they really shouldn't be when they are already compromised."