4.6 Wildfires

Climate change is projected to increase the frequency and intensity of large wildfires (Figure 4.4), with associated health risks projected to increase in many regions.1,2 Wildfire can have health impacts well beyond the perimeter of the fire. Populations near the fire or even thousands of miles downwind may be exposed to a complex smoke mixture containing various substances including carbon monoxide, ozone, toxic chemicals, and both fine and coarse particles,3,4 presenting a serious health risk for the exposed populations (see Ch. 3: Air Quality Impacts).5,6 For example, the 2002 forest fires in Quebec resulted in up to a 30-fold increase in airborne fine particulate concentrations in Baltimore, Maryland, a city nearly 1,000 miles downwind.1 Exposure times can range from a few days to several weeks.3,7,8

 

Figure 4.4: Projected Increases in Very Large Fires

Figure 4.4:  Projected Increases in Very Large Fires
Based on 17 climate model simulations for the continental United States using a higher emissions pathway (RCP8.5), the map shows projected percentage increases in weeks with risk of very large fires by mid-century (2041-2070) compared to the recent past (1971-2000). The darkest shades of red indicated that up to a 6-fold increase in risk is projected for parts of the West. This area includes the Great Basin, Northern Rockies, and parts of Northern California. Gray represents areas within the continental United States where there is either no data or insufficient historical observations on very large fires to build robust models. The potential for very large fire events is also expected to increase along the southern coastline and in areas around the Great Lakes. (Figure source: adapted from Barbero et al. 2015 by NOAA)50

Exposure to smoke-related air pollutants from wildfires has been associated with a wide range of human health effects, including early deaths and low infant birth weight, with the strongest evidence for acute respiratory illness.3,4,9,10,11,12,13 Inhalation of smoke from wildfire has been linked to exacerbated respiratory problems, such as shortness of breath, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).12,14,15,16 While the association between smoke exposure and cardiovascular outcomes is uncertain,12 exposure to fine particles contributes to risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.17,18,19,20

Firefighters battling fire

Exposure to smoke-related air pollutants from wildfires has been associated with a wide range of human health effects.

Wildfires can also affect indoor air quality for those living near affected areas by increasing particulate matter concentrations within homes, leading to many of the adverse health impacts already discussed.7,21 For example, during the 2007 San Diego wildfires, health monitoring showed excess emergency room visits for asthma, respiratory problems, chest pain, and COPD. During times of peak fire particulate matter concentrations, the odds of a person seeking emergency care increased by 50% when compared to non-fire conditions.22 Smoke from wildfires can also impair driving visibility, increasing risks of motor vehicle deaths and injuries.23,24,25,26

Pregnant women, children, and the elderly are more sensitive to the harmful health effects of wildfire smoke exposure (see also Ch. 9: Populations of Concern).27,14,28,29 Firefighters are exposed to significantly higher levels and longer periods of exposure to combustion products from fires, leading to health risks that include decreased lung function, inflammation, and respiratory system problems, as well as injuries from burns and falling trees.3,28,30,31,32,33

Wildfires can also create an increased burden on the health care system and public health infrastructure. For example, wildfires near populated areas often necessitate large evacuations, requiring extensive public health resources, including shelter, and treatment of individuals for injuries, smoke inhalation, and mental health impacts.34,25,35,36 Housing development in or near the wildland–urban interface has expanded over the last several decades and is expected to continue to expand.37 These changing development patterns in combination with a changing climate are increasing the vulnerability of these areas to wildfires.38,39,40

Following wildfire, increased soil erosion rates and changes to runoff generation may contaminate water-supply reservoirs and disrupt downstream drinking water supplies.41,42 Post-wildfire erosion and runoff has been linked to increased flooding and debris flow hazards, depending on the severity of the fire, seasonal rainfall patterns, watershed characteristics, and the size of the burn area.43,44,45,46 Wildfires have a range of short- and long-term effects on watersheds that have the potential to change water quality, quantity, availability, and treatability downstream from the burned area.47,48,49

References

  1. Ashley, W. S., S. Strader, D. C. Dziubla, and A. Haberlie, 2015: Driving blind: Weather-related vision hazards and fatal motor vehicle crashes. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 96, 755-778. doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-14-00026.1 | Detail
  2. Barbero, R., J. T. Abatzoglou, N. K. Larkin, C. A. Kolden, and B. Stocks, 2015: Climate change presents increased potential for very large fires in the contiguous United States. International Journal of Wildland Fire. doi:10.1071/WF15083 | Detail
  3. Booze, T. F., T. E. Reinhardt, S. J. Quiring, and R. D. Ottmar, 2004: A screening-level assessment of the health risks of chronic smoke exposure for wildland firefighters. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 1, 296-305. doi:10.1080/15459620490442500 | Detail
  4. Caamano-Isorna, F., A. Figueiras, I. Sastre, A. Montes-Martinez, M. Taracido, and M. Pineiro-Lamas, 2011: Respiratory and mental health effects of wildfires: An ecological study in Galician municipalities (north-west Spain). Environmental Health, 10, Article 48. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-10-48 | Detail
  5. Cannon, S. H., and J. DeGraff, 2009: The increasing wildfire and post-fire debris-flow threat in western USA, and implications for consequences of climate change. Landslides – Disaster Risk Reduction, K. Sassa and Canuti, P., Eds., Springer, 177-190. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-69970-5_9 | Detail
  6. Cannon, S. H., J. E. Gartner, R. C. Wilson, J. C. Bowers, and J. L. Laber, 2008: Storm rainfall conditions for floods and debris flows from recently burned areas in southwestern Colorado and southern California. Geomorphology, 96, 250-269. doi:10.1016/j.geomorph.2007.03.019 | Detail
  7. Delfino, R. J., and others, 2009: The relationship of respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions to the southern California wildfires of 2003. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 66, 189-197. doi:10.1136/oem.2008.041376 | Detail
  8. Elliott, C., S. Henderson, and V. Wan, 2013: Time series analysis of fine particulate matter and asthma reliever dispensations in populations affected by forest fires. Environmental Health, 12, 11. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-12-11 | Detail
  9. Emelko, M. B., U. Silins, K. D. Bladon, and M. Stone, 2011: Implications of land disturbance on drinking water treatability in a changing climate: Demonstrating the need for "source water supply and protection" strategies. Water Research, 45, 461-472. doi:10.1016/j.watres.2010.08.051 | Detail
  10. Garcia, C. A., P. -S. Yap, H. -Y. Park, and B. L. Weller, 2015: Association of long-term PM2.5 exposure with mortality using different air pollution exposure models: Impacts in rural and urban California. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 26, 145-157. doi:10.1080/09603123.2015.1061113 | Detail
  11. Garfin, G., G. Franco, H. Blanco, A. Comrie, P. Gonzalez, T. Piechota, R. Smyth, and R. Waskom, 2014: Ch. 20: Southwest. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J.M. Melillo, Richmond, T. (T.C.), and Yohe, G.W., Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 462-486. doi:10.7930/J08G8HMN | Detail
  12. Ghilarducci, D. P., and R. S. Tjeerdema, 1995: Fate and effects of acrolein. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 144, 95-146. doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-2550-8_2 | Detail
  13. Gold, D. R., and others, 2000: Ambient pollution and heart rate variability. Circulation, 101, 1267-1273. doi:10.1161/01.CIR.101.11.1267 | Detail
  14. Henderson, S. B., and F. H. Johnston, 2012: Measures of forest fire smoke exposure and their associations with respiratory health outcomes. Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 12, 221-227. doi:10.1097/ACI.0b013e328353351f | Detail
  15. Henderson, S. B., M. Brauer, Y. C. Macnab, and S. M. Kennedy, 2011: Three measures of forest fire smoke exposure and their associations with respiratory and cardiovascular health outcomes in a population-based cohort. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119, 1266-1271. doi:10.1289/ehp.1002288 | Detail
  16. Holstius, D. M., C. E. Reid, B. M. Jesdale, and R. Morello-Frosch, 2012: Birth weight following pregnancy during the 2003 southern California wildfires. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120, 1340-1345. doi:10.1289/ehp.1104515 | Detail
  17. Johnston, F., I. Hanigan, S. Henderson, G. Morgan, and D. Bowman, 2011: Extreme air pollution events from bushfires and dust storms and their association with mortality in Sydney, Australia 1994–2007. Environmental Research, 111, 811-816. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2011.05.007 | Detail
  18. Jones, R. T., D. P. Ribbe, P. B. Cunningham, J. D. Weddle, and A. K. Langley, 2002: Psychological impact of fire disaster on children and their parents. Behavior Modification, 26, 163-186. doi:10.1177/0145445502026002003 | Detail
  19. Jordan, P., K. Turner, D. Nicol, and D. Boyer, 2006: Developing a risk analysis procedure for post-wildfire mass movement and flooding in British Columbia. 1st Specialty Conference on Disaster Medicine, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. URL | Detail
  20. Künzli, N., and others, 2006: Health effects of the 2003 southern California wildfires on children. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 174, 1221-1228. doi:10.1164/rccm.200604-519OC | Detail
  21. Knowlton, K., M. Rotkin-Ellman, L. Geballe, W. Max, and G. M. Solomon, 2011: Six climate change-related events in the United States accounted for about $14 billion in lost lives and health costs. Health Affairs, 30, 2167-2176. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0229 | Detail
  22. Leonard, S. S., V. Castranova, B. T. Chen, D. Schwegler-Berry, M. Hoover, C. Piacitelli, and D. M. Gaughan, 2007: Particle size-dependent radical generation from wildland fire smoke. Toxicology, 236, 103-113. doi:10.1016/j.tox.2007.04.008 | Detail
  23. Luber, G., and others, 2014: Ch. 9: Human Health. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J.M. Melillo, Richmond, T. (T.C.), and Yohe, G.W., Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 220-256. doi:10.7930/J0PN93H5 | Detail
  24. Mann, M. L., P. Berck, M. A. Moritz, E. Batllori, J. G. Baldwin, C. K. Gately, and D. R. Cameron, 2014: Modeling residential development in California from 2000 to 2050: Integrating wildfire risk, wildland and agricultural encroachment. Land Use Policy, 41, 438-452. doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2014.06.020 | Detail
  25. McMeeking, G. R., and others, 2006: Smoke-impacted regional haze in California during the summer of 2002. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 137, 25-42. doi:10.1016/j.agrformet.2006.01.011 | Detail
  26. Moody, J. A., R. A. Shakesby, P. R. Robichaud, S. H. Cannon, and D. A. Martin, 2013: Current research issues related to post-wildfire runoff and erosion processes. Earth-Science Reviews, 122, 10-37. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2013.03.004 | Detail
  27. Naeher, L. P., M. Brauer, M. Lipsett, J. T. Zelikoff, C. D. Simpson, J. Q. Koenig, and K. R. Smith, 2007: Woodsmoke health effects: A review. Inhalation Toxicology, 19, 67-106. doi:10.1080/08958370600985875 | Detail
  28. Olsen, C. S., D. K. Mazzotta, E. Toman, and A. P. Fischer, 2014: Communicating about smoke from wildland fire: Challenges and opportunities for managers. Environmental Management, 54, 571-582. doi:10.1007/s00267-014-0312-0 | Detail
  29. Peters, M. P., L. R. Iverson, S. N. Matthews, and A. M. Prasad, 2013: Wildfire hazard mapping: Exploring site conditions in eastern US wildland–urban interfaces. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 22, 567-578. doi:10.1071/WF12177 | Detail
  30. Phuleria, H. C., P. M. Fine, Y. Zhu, and C. Sioutas, 2005: Air quality impacts of the October 2003 southern California wildfires. Journal of Geophysical Research, 110, D07S20. doi:10.1029/2004jd004626 | Detail
  31. Pope, C. A., M. C. Turner, R. T. Burnett, M. Jerrett, S. M. Gapstur, W. R. Diver, D. Krewski, and R. D. Brook, 2015: Relationships Between Fine Particulate Air Pollution, Cardiometabolic Disorders, and Cardiovascular Mortality. Circulation Research, 116, 108-115. doi:10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.116.305060 | Detail
  32. Pope, C. A., R. T. Burnett, G. D. Thurston, M. J. Thun, E. E. Calle, D. Krewski, and J. J. Godleski, 2004: Cardiovascular Mortality and Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution: Epidemiological Evidence of General Pathophysiological Pathways of Disease. Circulation, 109, 71-77. doi:10.1161/01.CIR.0000108927.80044.7F | Detail
  33. Radeloff, V. C., R. B. Hammer, S. I. Stewart, J. S. Fried, S. S. Holcomb, and J. F. McKeefry, 2005: The wildland-urban interface in the United States. Ecological Applications, 15, 799-805. doi:10.1890/04-1413 | Detail
  34. Rappold, A. G., and others, 2011: Peat bog wildfire smoke exposure in rural North Carolina is associated with cardiopulmonary emergency department visits assessed through syndromic surveillance. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119, 1415-1420. doi:10.1289/ehp.1003206 | Detail
  35. Rhoades, C. C., D. Entwistle, and D. Butler, 2012: Water quality effects following a severe fire. Fire Management Today, 72, (2):35-39. URL | Detail
  36. Richardson, L. A., P. A. Champ, and J. B. Loomis, 2012: The hidden cost of wildfires: Economic valuation of health effects of wildfire smoke exposure in Southern California. Journal of Forest Economics, 18, 14-35. doi:10.1016/j.jfe.2011.05.002 | Detail
  37. Sapkota, A., and others, 2005: Impact of the 2002 Canadian forest fires on particulate matter air quality in Baltimore City. Environmental Science & Technology, 39, 24-32. doi:10.1021/es035311z | Detail
  38. Sham, C. H., M. E. Tuccillo, and J. Rooke, 2013: Effects of Wildfire on Drinking Water Utilities and Best Practices for Wildfire Risk Reduction and Mitigation. 119 pp., Water Research Foundation, Denver, CO. URL | Detail
  39. Smith, H. G., G. J. Sheridan, P. N. J. Lane, P. Nyman, and S. Haydon, 2011: Wildfire effects on water quality in forest catchments: A review with implications for water supply. Journal of Hydrology, 396, 170-192. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2010.10.043 | Detail
  40. Squire, B., C. Chidester, and S. Raby, 2011: Medical events during the 2009 Los Angeles County Station fire: Lessons for wildfire EMS planning. Prehospital Emergency Care, 15, 464-472. doi:10.3109/10903127.2011.598607 | Detail
  41. Stefanidou, M., S. Athanaselis, and C. Spiliopoulou, 2008: Health impacts of fire smoke inhalation. Inhalation Toxicology, 20, 761-766. doi:10.1080/08958370801975311 | Detail
  42. Sutherland, E. R., B. J. Make, S. Vedal, L. Zhang, S. J. Dutton, J. R. Murphy, and P. E. Silkoff, 2005: Wildfire smoke and respiratory symptoms in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 115, 420-422. doi:10.1016/j.jaci.2004.11.030 | Detail
  43. Thelen, B., and others, 2013: Modeling acute respiratory illness during the 2007 San Diego wildland fires using a coupled emissions-transport system and generalized additive modeling. Environmental Health, 12, 94. doi:10.1186/1476-069x-12-94 | Detail
  44. Thomas, D. S., and D. T. Butry, 2014: Areas of the U.S. wildland–urban interface threatened by wildfire during the 2001–2010 decade. Natural Hazards, 71, 1561-1585. doi:10.1007/s11069-013-0965-7 | Detail
  45. USGS, 2012: Wildfire Effects on Source-Water Quality: Lessons from Fourmile Canyon Fire, Colorado, and Implications for Drinking-Water Treatment. 4 pp. URL | Detail
  46. Viswanathan, S., L. Eria, N. Diunugala, J. Johnson, and C. McClean, 2006: An analysis of effects of San Diego wildfire on ambient air quality. Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 56, 56-67. doi:10.1080/10473289.2006.10464439 | Detail
  47. Wegesser, T. C., K. E. Pinkerton, and J. A. Last, 2009: California wildfires of 2008: Coarse and fine particulate matter toxicity. Environmental Health Perspectives, 117, 893-897. doi:10.1289/ehp.0800166 | Detail
  48. Weinhold, B., 2011: Fields and forests in flames: Vegetation smoke and human health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119, a386-a393. doi:10.1289/ehp.119-a386 | Detail
  49. Youssouf, H., C. Liousse, L. Roblou, E. -M. Assamoi, R. O. Salonen, C. Maesano, S. Banerjee, and I. Annesi-Maesano, 2014: Non-accidental health impacts of wildfire smoke. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11, 11772-11804. doi:10.3390/ijerph111111772 | Detail
  50. Youssouf, H., C. Liousse, L. Roblou, E. M. Assamoi, R. O. Salonen, C. Maesano, S. Banerjee, and I. Annesi-Maesano, 2014: Quantifying wildfires exposure for investigating health-related effects. Atmospheric Environment, 97, 239-251. doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2014.07.041 | Detail