In California’s hotter climate, the severity of large wildfires is growing. Extreme events like the 2018 Camp Fire that leveled Paradise are having profound effects on human health.
These impacts are felt by residents in the immediate fire zones, first responders and other fire workers, and people impacted by smoke who live many miles away. Our most vulnerable groups — including children, elderly, disabled, and low-income communities — are being hit hardest and need focused resources.
In Spring 2019, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute collaborated with the California Institute for Energy and Environment to bring together UC Berkeley faculty and students with practitioners from local governments, state agencies and community organizations to examine the health impacts of wildfires and to identify solutions to better protect health in future events. A recently published white paper summarizes their recommendations for stronger actions and expanded research.
1. The wildfire problem in California is growing in a hotter climate.
Fifteen of the twenty largest fires in California history have occurred since 2000. The largest, most destructive and deadliest fires in California history have all occurred in the last two years. Fire season is getting longer and fire behavior is changing.
2. Wildfires produce a series of serious health impacts for a wide range of people.
Residents and workers who are directly impacted by wildfires can suffer loss of life as well as major injuries such as burns and broken bones. Residents and workers in fire areas and those who live at some distance can be significantly harmed by air pollution from wildfires. When wildfires burn into urban areas, buildings and vehicles burn, producing smoke that can contain a number of toxic air contaminants.
3. We need a series of near-term solutions for reducing health impacts in high-risk fire areas in the next few years.
Solutions can include community outreach and wildfire education programs tailored to specific communities, new technologies for fire monitoring and evacuations, and adding substantial funding for making infrastructure more resilient to fire.
4. In the longer-term, we must design and implement large-scale, community-wide solutions to the growing wildfire problem.
We need a culture change in thinking about our forests to allow improved forest and vegetation management, including thinning, controlled burns and other techniques. We must align financial solutions such as insurance and bonds to reduce risk and implement land use reforms to restrict or prohibit development in high-risk areas.
5. Greater health protections for outside workers must be funded and mandated.
Fire fighters, police, clean-up laborers and other workers must have better respiratory protection equipment during and after fire events. Outdoor workers, including farm laborers and construction workers, need more protection from smoke events such as respiratory equipment and no-work or reduced-work days..
6. Protection during smoke events is critical for people living and working far from actual fire zones.
We need a coordinated “game plan” for smoke alerts and guidance. We must have a greater focus on intervention solutions for most vulnerable populations, such as children, elderly, and adults with pre-existing health conditions. Low-cost technologies — masks, DIY air filters, etc. — should be distributed widely to help individuals deal with smoke events at home and work.