Through the fire and the flames

University of Idaho Associate Professor Leda Kobziar and her team recently published research on microbes living in forest fire smoke.

Kobziar’s team found that microorganisms — such as allergens and bacteria — are not killed in forest fires. Instead, these tiny organisms are transported in forest fire smoke.

According to Kobziar, these organisms can be beneficial or harmful. She also claims that the organisms play a role in atmospheric science. Some of the bacteria can play a role in the formation of clouds.

“This research is related to the roles that these microorganisms play in human systems,” Kobziar said. “During fires, many people complain of respiratory and cardiopulmonary issues due to smoke. This research will help us understand how these pathogens are transported by fire.”

Kobziar also claims that this research will play a significant role in the timber industry. She said people in the timber industry often burn piles of diseased wood.

Leda Kobziar | Courtesy

“We’re excited because this is new integrative research,” Kobziar said. “It represents the best of what we can do as scientists — working with people doing different things and coming together in an interdisciplinary team to make new discoveries.”

According to Kobziar, this research can be used to help with the conservation of forest ecosystems and teaching people to live sustainably.

“We have lots of plans for the future,” Kobziar said. “We want to look at specific organisms in the lab to see what they do to the ecosystem. We also want to sample higher intensity fires to see how that affects the microbes released.”

Kobziar emphasizes that this research is just the tip of the iceberg of research in this area. She and her team are still learning about the role fire has in the health of people and forests. They are investigating the broader implications of their work.

“There are still lots of unknowns,” Kobziar said.

Kobziar’s team includes former UI post-doctoral student Melissa Pingree, undergraduate Environmental Science student Shelby Green, forest pathologist Tyler Dreaden with the U.S. Forest Service and forest pathologist Jason Smith and Heather Larson from the University of Florida.

Kobziar and her team first published their paper, “Pyroaerobiology: the aerosolization and transport of viable microbial life by wildland fire” on Nov. 15 in Ecosphere.

Alexis Van Horn can be reached at arg-news@uidaho.edu and on Twitter @AlexisRVanHorn.

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