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Firefighters Vulnerable to Viruses

June 30, 2002

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DURANGO, Colo. (AP) _ Burns, smoke inhalation and broken bones aren’t the only hazards that face crews battling wildfires.

Viruses are making their rounds at Durango High School, where crews fighting a roughly 71,000-acre wildfire have clustered their tents.

The firefighters call it ``camp crud,″ a generic term for any kind of coughs and worse that spread from person to person and camp to camp.

``I’m sleeping on the football field, and that was my alarm clock at 4 a.m. _ people coughing,″ said Tina Matiyow, medical unit leader at the fire near Durango.

One virus, which causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, arrived at Durango from another fire camp and left fire meteorologist Mike Chamberlain hospitalized Friday with a fever and blurry vision. He was back at work the next day.

Medics remind firefighters to wash their hands, take vitamins and drink plenty of water. Sack lunches taken to the line come with a plastic glove. Hand-washing liquid sits near portable toilets and telephones.

Along with viruses, about 2 percent to 3 percent of firefighters have been sent home because of altitude sickness, said medical specialist Marla Nichols. Durango is at an elevation of 6,512 feet and some firefighters work as high as 11,000 feet.

There have been some injuries among firefighters battling wildfires in Colorado and Arizona, but few considered serious.

In Colorado, the worst injury was broken ribs in a firefighter who stepped into a hole and slammed his chest into a rock, Matiyow said. In Arizona, one firefighter suffered leg burns when he stepped into a hot spot, and another was treated for a bad sunburn after he fell asleep in the sun.

``We’ve been really lucky,″ Matiyow said. ``I think the message is getting out to crews to be safety conscious.″

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