Altitude sickness takes toll on Durango-area firefighters

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Altitude sickness taking toll on Durango-area firefighters

6/28/02

DURANGO, Colo. (AP) - Hard work at high elevations is taking its toll on firefighters battling a 70,800-acre blaze in southwestern Colorado.

About 2 percent to 3 percent of firefighters have been sent home after suffering from altitude sickness, said medical specialist Marla Nichols.

"Since June 11, I've seen at least 50 people with it," she said.

Altitude sickness typically occurs above 6,500 feet. Durango and the fire camp sit at 6,512 feet, and some firefighters have been working at elevations as high as 11,000 feet.

One firefighter suspected to be suffering a heart attack was rushed to a hospital with what turned out to be high altitude pulmonary edema, a severe form of altitude sickness that causes a person's lungs to fill with liquid. He was sent home to Georgia, Nichols said.

New crews arriving at the scene are sent immediately to the fire lines without taking time to acclimate to the altitude, Nichols said.

"It was like breathing through a bag," said John "Doc" Brown, who spent two weeks supervising a crew from Medford, Ore., after the fire broke out June 9. "It's a little bit harder doing this work because the air is so thin up there."

Typical symptoms of altitude sickness include severe headaches, lethargy, breathing difficulty and disorientation.

"We are getting a lot of people who are just not used to this altitude," said Tina Matiyow, the camp's medical management leader. "This is the most cases of this I've ever seen."
 

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