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Health providers raise alarm over rising number of AZ burn injuries from outdoor surfaces

sun in phoenix
Jackie Hai/KJZZ
The sun.

In Arizona’s triple-digit summer heat, outdoor surfaces like asphalt can get up to 180 degrees in full sun. Last year, a fall in his backyard left one Phoenix man with severe burns and lasting health effects. A rise in senior patients with similar injuries as temperatures continue to climb has health care providers raising the alarm.

Seventy-one-year-old Navy veteran Robert Woolley and his wife are celebrating their 43rd anniversary this weekend. But roughly a year ago, Woolley fell into the gravel behind their home.

"They were really sharp, and they were super hot, and I just reflexively picked my hand up, and then I went all the way down — I hit my head on the ground as well," Woolley recalled. "I tried pushing up with my hands, and it was so painful, I couldn't keep my hands in contact with the ground for an effectively, a long enough time to move."

His wife and adult son were able to get him help, but as much as 15% of Woolley’s body had third-degree burns.

Dr. Kevin Foster is the director at the Arizona Burn Center, where Woolley received treatment for five months.

“This June, we’ve really seen a lot of contact burns. We’re at about 50 admissions so far,” Foster said, adding that four of those patients died.

An increasing number of their patients are older, he said, making precautions like staying inside during peak hours critical.

“We’ve always had contact burns during the summertime,” said Foster, “but it really didn’t register as something we needed to talk about until the pandemic. And then we saw a little over a hundred patients in that three month period of time.”

Foster said people often don't see this as something that can happen to them. But Arizona is on track to exceed last year’s record, which he said pointed to as a clear sign of the need for more awareness and prevention efforts for people of all ages.

Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.