Climate Change and Health: Wildfires
This blog is a part of a new series from Climate Reality on the many ways that climate change is impacting human health. Check back for content on topics like hurricanes, heat waves, asthma, and more.
Wildfires are devastating communities around the world. From the billion-dollar destruction they cause to the incalculable costs of lost plant, animal, and even human life, these devastating natural disasters are scarring our landscapes and leaving those who make it out with their lives with long-lasting health concerns.
And conditions are only expected to become even more favorable for more frequent and intense wildfires in our warming world.
The climate crisis creates the perfect conditions for extreme wildfire seasons in the American West and many other regions around the globe. The reasons why are pretty simple science: Warm weather is arriving earlier and earlier and lasting longer. It goes to figure that snowpacks are melting earlier, leaving less water available during the heat of the summer. Precipitation patterns are also changing. The result? Parching of the land and die-off of plant life.
All these dead and dried-out plants then act as tinder, igniting when the heat soars and lightning strikes or a careless cigarette butt is tossed in the wrong direction. And, with less predictable rains, and seemingly more unpredictable wildfire behavior, once fires begin, it’s harder to stop them.
Add into the mix more development in the wildland-urban interface, and you have an increasing number of structures and people being placed at risk.
Greece is burning, and if we don't tackle climate change it won't be the only one. #YEARSprojectPosted by Climate Facts on Thursday, July 26, 2018
>> Learn more: Is Climate Change Really Making Weather More Extreme? <<
In California, the now-largest wildfire in the state’s history, the Mendocino Complex Fire, has already burned more than 300,000 acres and is not expected to be fully contained until early September. As of this writing, we have yet to even reach the peak of fire season.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “Of the 20 largest wildfires in California history, 15 have occurred since 2000. So have 13 of the 20 most destructive fires, measured by structures destroyed. In three Northern California wine country fires last October, 7,774 buildings were wiped out and 31 people killed.”
And what’s happening in California is just one example of many. In 2018 alone, wildfires have been pervasive across central and northern Europe, from the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden to Malta, Poland, and Germany. They’re even coming where you might least expect it – the boreal forests that encircle the globe in the Arctic North, for example, have in recent years “experienced wildfires at a rate and scale not seen in at least 10,000 years.”
Worse, they’re also becoming deadlier. A fast-moving blaze just east of Athens, Greece, killed 91 people in July
But beyond even the tragic injuries and fatalities that can result directly from major forest fires, these climate-driven events can damage infrastructure, jeopardizing access to lifesaving care for extended periods of time, threaten water quality and food supplies, and of course, dramatically diminish the quality of one of the most important things on earth – the air we breathe.
RESPIRATORY AND CARDIAC PROBLEMS
It’s a terrible two-step. First, burning fossil fuels pollutes our air directly with irritants like particulate matter and soot. Then, as the greenhouse gases they release accumulate in the atmosphere and average temperatures rise, we’re seeing higher levels of ground-level ozone that can cause acute and long-term respiratory problems.
And that’s before the fire even starts.
“Hazy skies and thick, smoky air aren’t just symptoms of the fire — they present their own dangers, even when wildfires themselves remain very far away,” the New York Times reports. “Poor air quality can have disastrous effects on people’s health: like coughing, sore throats, extreme wheezing among people with respiratory disease, and cardiovascular illness. Prolonged exposure to bad air can even work its way into your lungs and blood stream.”
Wildfire smoke carries fine particles that “can penetrate deep into your lungs.” Exposure has been linked to burning eyes, heart and lung diseases, and even premature death – and these effects last long after the fire has been extinguished.
As just one example, in the last few years, Equatorial Asia has endured enormous forest fires annually. Recent research suggests that more than 100,000 premature deaths may have been caused by lung disease from smoke and particulate matter across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
And our most vulnerable people face even graver risk from poor air quality, especially those with existing heart, vascular, or lung diseases, senior adults, and pregnant women.
Children, including teenagers, are particularly sensitive to the harms of wildfire smoke, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, “because their respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults, they’re more likely to be active outdoors, and they’re more likely to have asthma.”
This Neighborhood Was Devastated by the Fires in California
We’re devastated to see the human impact of the unprecedented fires in California. We must do everything we can to prevent fires like this from becoming our new normal. (via NowThis)Posted by Climate Reality on Monday, October 16, 2017
VULNERABILITY TO OTHER WEATHER EXTREMES
The destruction left in the wake of a major wildfire can also open the door to other impacts.
Climate Reality Leader Kathi King is a resident of Santa Barbara County, California. In January 2018, a major mudslide swept through the area following wildfires that destroyed vegetation that otherwise could have held back the earth following heavy rain. At least 20 people were killed, and Kathi was forced to take refuge in a tree until help arrived.
“The Thomas Fire, the [then] largest in California history, was contained in early January, just in time for a storm to approach Santa Barbara, with warnings of debris flow from the denuded hillsides,” she told Climate Reality earlier this year.
Kathi’s attempt to evacuate was hindered by flooding from the storm.
“I saw the pillars of a driveway in the glow of my taillights. I wedged my car against a tree, squeezed out onto the roof, wrapped my arms around a branch, and began making phone calls. I called my husband and son – no answer. I feared the worst.”
Her son and husband were safe, though “trapped with several other cars on an off-ramp. They were in about a foot of mud, but first responders had reached them and told them to shelter in place.”
Kathi’s story is a reminder that even after the danger of the wildfire itself has passed, numerous concerns and health impacts remain. Without the trees and vegetation lost to fires, homes, businesses, and other infrastructure – and the people who live and work in them – are left much more vulnerable to major flooding and mudslides and other hazards.
In the aftermath of flooding and attendant mudslides comes still, stagnant water, which can increase the likelihood of water-borne illnesses such as wound infections, dermatitis, conjunctivitis, and ear, nose and throat infections.
Standing water also creates habitats for numerous vectors, perhaps particularly mosquitos, that can overwhelm already-reeling communities. Vector-borne diseases are spread by insects or arachnids (the vectors) like mosquitoes and fleas, and can include the West Nile and Zika viruses, among many others.
TAKE ACTION TO PROTECT WHAT MATTERS
Climate-exacerbated wildfires can create many medical emergencies, but they are far from the only impacts of this crisis that can land you or the people you love in the hospital. From increasing the odds of dangerous hurricanes and flooding to extreme heat and infectious disease, climate change is already threatening our health and well-being – and even our lives.
So how do we fight back?
By taking action.
The impact of the climate crisis on human health is far-reaching, but solutions exist that can help us improve quality of life around the world right now and work toward a healthier, more sustainable future for all.
Learn more about the health risks of the climate crisis in our latest e-book, The Climate Crisis and Your Health: What You Need to Know.
In The Climate Crisis and Your Health, we break down the many ways climate change adversely affects respiratory and mental health, the danger it presents to food and water security, how it increases the risk of infectious disease, the many unique ways children are put at unique risk in our warming world, and much more.