Monday, December 4, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Californians dogged by negative health effects from more frequent wildfires

Decades of fire suppression and subpar forest management has led to an explosion of wildfires across the Golden State each year.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — With more Californians exposed to dangerous wildfire smoke every year due to increasingly destructive wildfires and climate change, lawmakers are urged to consider using limited funds to target the most vulnerable communities first.

“Living under Smoky Skies — Understanding the Challenges Posed by Wildfire Smoke in California,” published by the Legislative Analyst's Office on Monday, is intended to assist lawmakers considering actions to mitigate the impacts of wildfire smoke – particularly on Californians who are most vulnerable to its impacts.

Helen Kerstein, principal fiscal and policy analyst for the LAO, said Monday's report lays out information now available for policymakers working to tackle the issue, including recommendations for mitigating the most destructive fires and smoke. 

“I grew up in California, born and raised, and I don't remember smoky days, at least not the way we see recently,” Kerstein said. But she noted that fire was once a part of the landscape until state and federal governments worked to suppress it, where Indigenous communities once tended and controlled it.

Wildfire smoke emissions have significantly increased and driven a growth in statewide air pollution, and experts say the trend will continue as more intense wildfires are expected in coming years. A combination of climate change and decades of poor forest management will drive these wildfire smoke events, as will some of the state’s efforts to reduce wildfires such as planned fires -- known as prescribed fires and cultural fires historically managed by Indigenous tribes.

Twelve of the 20 largest wildfires in recorded state history have occurred within the last five years, in part due to many unhealthy forests after decades of fire suppression and worsening climate change effects like increased heat and longer dry seasons. Increased frequency and severity of drought stresses trees, creating more dead and dying trees that fuel severe wildfires. 

The report notes that before European colonization and settlement, wildfires burned large regions of land. In the 1700s around 4.5 million acres burned, more than four times the average acreage burned annually today, since wildfire suppression practices had not begun and smoke likely filled the skies throughout summer and fall.

The recent increase in smoke from highly destructive wildfires also spreads pollutants across the state in the form of particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and trace metals — which are very harmful for humans and animals. Smoke from wildfires that burn structures contain higher levels of contaminants such as lead than would be typical from vegetation alone.

As a result, the average estimated annual PM2.5 from wildfire smoke was significantly higher across much of the state between 2013-2020 than it was before 2013. PM2.5’s small size allows it to infiltrate indoor spaces, especially those that are not well-sealed, and humans’ respiratory tracts and bloodstreams where it can trigger negative health effects.

New research links wildfire smoke to negative effects on human physical health and increased death. Researchers are looking at whether wildfire smoke directly affects cardiovascular illness, such as heart attacks, as well as the likelihood of premature birth and a greater risk of death.

Some populations are more likely to be exposed to smoke due to their occupation and where they live, particularly people of color and those who work outdoors in the agricultural and construction sectors. Some might be more susceptible when exposed to smoke, including people with health conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pregnant people, infants and children and people older than 65.

The report notes significant strides the state has made in recent decades toward improving air quality, by reducing emissions from both stationary and nonstationary sources. But policymakers should consider some mitigation efforts like funding research on smoke, expanding prescribed burn programs, funding for better filters and portable air purifiers or programs to invest in circulating air pollution information. Prescribed burns tend to have less effect on air quality because they are planned and typically conducted during favorable atmospheric and weather conditions with nearby communities notified in advance.

The California Air Resource Board and the state Department of Public Health currently spend an estimated $20 million annually on efforts related to wildfire smoke. In 2021, the board launched the mobile application California Smoke Spotter to track prescribed fires and wildfires, access information on air quality from monitors and smoke forecasts and set up alerts. Public Health updated a document in 2022 intended as a guide for local public health officials on sources of air quality information, populations at elevated risks from the effects of smoke and strategies to reduce exposure. 

The board funded some research on prescribed fires in 2019-2020 and has identified additional research as a continuing priority in its 2021-2024 research plan. New studies are underway to understand the effects of short-term exposure to particulate matter on lost work days, the components of the smoke released when structures burn and the effects of short-term, repeated exposure to wildfire smoke. 

“Given the disparities among communities, the Legislature could focus efforts on specific areas that are more vulnerable, such as those with higher baseline pollution levels, those located in greater proximity to fire-prone wildlands, or those that have fewer community resources to support local mitigation efforts,” the report added. Some activities have other benefits, like reducing exposure to and transmission of Covid-19 and other airborne viruses.

Kerstein said the Legislature has multiple options to address smoke pollution, but limited funding. The LAO report recommends targeting the most vulnerable, in part to address systemic racial disparity. 

And the report said it's not realistic to expect all wildfire smoke will be eliminated.

“As the state has learned, policies that attempt to exclude fire can contribute to poor forest health and ultimately lead to more severe wildfires than would otherwise be the case. Thus, smoke is likely to be an inevitable part of life for many Californians in the coming years, as wildland fires — both intentional prescribed fires and unintentional wildfires — cover more of the state’s landscapes.”

Kerstein added: “It’s unrealistic to expect we won't have some level of smoke. But we want to try to avoid huge fires that cause large amounts of damage, and the most damaging smoke that can spread to large areas and affect large numbers of people.”

Follow @nhanson_reports
Categories / Environment, Health, Regional, Science

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.