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What are the health and economic effects of wildfires?

Larger and more intense wildfires are creating greater potential for smoke production and chronic exposure. The occurrence of wildfires not only causes significant economic damage, but also increases air pollution in surrounding areas and may affect regional air quality, thereby endangering people's health.

#1 Health Impacts

Wildfires, and the resulting smoke and ashes, can cause:

  • burns and injuries
  • eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation
  • decreased lung function, including coughing and wheezing
  • pulmonary inflammation, bronchitis, exacerbations of asthma, and other lung diseases
  • exacerbation of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart failure

Wildfires also release significant amounts of mercury into the air, which can lead to impairment of speech, hearing, and walking, muscle weakness, and vision problems for people of all ages.

Another threat from forest fire smoke is carbon monoxide (CO)—a colorless, odorless gas most common during the smoldering stages of a fire and in close proximity to the fire. Inhaling CO reduces oxygen delivery to the body's organs and tissues and can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness, and, in high concentrations, premature death.

People with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children are most at risk. Susceptible individuals also include pregnant women, newborns, and people with obesity or diabetes.

#2 Psychological Impacts 

Smoke particles can be directly toxic to the brain. Numerous studies on urban particulate matter pollution indicate that long-term exposure to PM 2.5 can lead to cognitive effects, including an increased risk of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis.

Smoky weather can also spike anxiety and depression. “On air pollution days, we see evidence that people who have mental health symptoms, may be more likely to have more severe symptoms,” Bernstein says. There hasn’t been much research specifically on wildfire smoke. Still, one study found that even people who didn’t directly experience losses from the Camp Fire reported a significant increase in symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. It’s unsurprising that mental health would decline in the immediate aftermath of a fire, but “when one sees these symptoms six months out, it’s really become more of a disorder,” says author Jyoti Mishra, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego.

Exposure to a wildfire can have a traumatizing impact on civilians and firefighters. Estimates for civilian rates of PTSD and other anxiety disorders after a disaster range from 30 % to 60 %. These effects have been observed to last long after the fire, with 40 % showing signs up to 1.5 years after the event. Rates of PTSD among firefighters range from 13 % to 20 %, with 20 % experiencing burnout.

Although most particulate air pollution is attributable to vehicular and industrial sources, biomass combustion(burning organic material) during wildfires has been shown to have significant effects on outdoor air quality and climate as a result of the generation of fine particulate matter. The impact of wildfires on air quality is also very evident, as raging wildfires have led to a spike in the concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) less than or equal to 2.5 microns in diameter in the air.

If you already have Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other underlying medical conditions, you should be more concerned about the coming Wildfire season

According to a study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that wildfire smoke significantly increases levels of fine particulate air pollution and that these increases are associated with increases in respiratory symptoms in patients with COPD. Although there is no cure for COPD, it can be treated. This study's findings reinforce the need for larger prospectively planned studies of the health effects of wildfire smoke and suggest that patients with COPD should be informed of the risk of increased respiratory symptoms in relation to wildfire smoke and counseled about appropriate protective and therapeutic measures.

#3 Economic Impacts

Direct economic losses caused by mountain firesFires in the U.S. caused more than $70 billion in damage in 2021, and the situation will get even worse in the summer of 2022.

The economic losses were due to the deaths of civilians and firefighters. Using a justifiable value of a statistical life (VSL), a very rough estimate of the overall mortality losses can be achieved for just wildfires. An estimate for all firefighters (including wildfire) puts the number around $31.7 billion annually (excluding smoke exposure-related deaths) assuming a $5 million dollar value of a statistical life (VSL) and a $166 000 Value of a Statistical Injury (VSI). A point estimate should be checked against actual estimates from a specific fire, the southern California wildfires of 2003, which had an estimated $172.9 million to $1.729 billion dollars of economic losses due to wildfire-related mortality.