Climate change is leading to longer fire seasons, prompting concern about the mental health impacts of extended exposure to wildfire smoke, according to a joint UCLA report published Thursday.
Longer fire seasons pose a threat to communities threatened by the blaze itself and these changes can lead to smoke exposure for weeks or even months in communities far from the fires themselves.
Following a meeting at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, UCLA C-Solutions and Climate Resolve are partnering to shed light on the mental and physical health impacts of wildfires and smoke.
In the report, researchers say that government, public health agencies and the public generally need to understand the mental health impacts of wildfire smoke as the world enters a time in which wildfire smoke events are prolonged events.
“What happens when wildfires become chronic and persistent like they did in Australia in 2019 and California in 2020?” asked lead author Dr. David Eisenman, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor of community health sciences, professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine, and a director at the Fielding School’s Center for Healthy Climate Solutions (C-Solutions) and the school’s Center for Public Health and Disasters.
“Living under the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic gives some sense of what this is like,” said Eisenman, who has studied the aftermath of disasters from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the 100,000-acre Woolsey Fire in 2018. “The isolation from community and the dread that leaving the house to go into the world outside is fundamentally dangerous — this might sum up the isolating and fearsome experience of the pandemic and persistent wildfire smoke events.”
The report — Mental Health Effects Of Wildfire Smoke, Solastalgia, and Non-Traditional Firefighters — was written by Eisenman; May M.T Kyaw, a medical student at UCLA; and Kristopher Eclarino, with Climate Resolve, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit.
In 2019, the National Academy of Medicine, as part of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, co-sponsored a workshop on the public health implications of the California wildfires. Eisenman served as an organizer and presenter.
Among other issues, the review discussed the potential health effects of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5 and PM10), and whether smoke from wildfires may have similar or different toxicities, and the resulting physical and mental health impacts. This, in turn, led to the current study.
“Wildfires are occurring with increasing frequency and severity each year, and each year their impacts on people become clearer,” Kyaw said. “They displace entire communities, and their smoke can affect regions hundreds of miles away, and for days, weeks or months at a time. However, very little is understood about how wildfires affect mental health.”