Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


wildfire-smoke

(PHOTO: ART PHO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Wildfires: Where There’s Smoke There’s Illness

• October 08, 2013 • 4:48 PM

(PHOTO: ART PHO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Trying to get a handle on how best to fight wildfires should include understanding the fires’ collateral damage.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire runs the old saw, but the reverse is usually equally true: Where there’s fire there’s smoke. And where there’s wildfires, there’s lots of smoke, especially as fires become bigger and more destructive (although not automatically more common). Surely it’s a bad idea to be breathing that hazy residue.

A new study looking a four years worth of wildfires upwind from Reno, Nevada, puts some numbers on that common-sense observation and suggests that ill effects of wildfire smoke may be present as much as 300 miles from the burning. Researchers led by resource economist Klaus Moeltner of Virginia Tech compared the toll of acres burned to data on air pollution and hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

Keeping in mind that the average fire they studied was 50,200 acres—the size of Madison, Wisconsin—they report:

Accounting for lagged effects, we find that an additional 100 acres burned cause between $60 and $210 in inpatient treatment costs for acute respiratory problems, depending on fire distance and primary fuel type. The analogous cost estimates for cardiovascular admissions range from $70 to $260. For the 2008 fire season this translates into total smoke-induced inpatient costs in Reno/Sparks of close to $2.2 million.

If those figures seem bearable in the scheme of things, keep in mind that these costs are limited to a metro area of about 350,000 people (granted it is the “the biggest little city in the world“) and to heart and lung issues. It doesn’t look at the cost of cowering indoors afraid to venture outside, or the costs of visits to the emergency room, family doctor, or outpatient clinic. The authors themselves see their numbers as the “lower bounds” of a wildfire’s mixed economic toll:

Beyond medical expenses, our cost estimates are likely just the tip of a much larger iceberg of total economic losses from wildfire smoke in downwind communities. Additional costs would include non-market components such as decreased productivity and forgone recreational opportunities.

And it’s not all money. After Sumatra’s awful 1997 fires, researchers inferred that fetal and child mortality in Indonesia exceeded 15,000 due to the smoke.

The urban area of Reno offered Moeltner’s team “an ongoing natural experiment” for studying these issues thanks to the general dryness of the Great Basin location, prevailing winds that blow smoke into town, a large number of wildfires within 500 miles that vary in size from 700 acres to 190,000, and various habitats—grasses, sage/juniper stands, full-blown forests—that burn. Their study period ranged from March 2003 to December 2008; 2008 was a particularly “intense” fire year for the region.

What made their study different from the pack—and there are a number of wildfire/health surveys drawn from fire-prone study sites in North America, South Africa, and Australia—is that these researchers looked at the day-to-day figures over 1,399 days, which gave them lots of fires to examine.

The researchers looked most at health issues that could be related to breathing in particles 2.5 microns or larger, a traditional yardstick for looking at pollution. At that size the particles cause both haze and health concerns. The researchers also looked at wildfire pollutants carbon monoxide and ozone, which, while definitely bad for you, usually don’t lead directly to the hospital. Most of what we do know about the effects of smoke on health, by the way, comes from studying cooking fires using wood as a fuel and from industrial sources in big cities (not to mention studies on smoking).

A 2006 study found that about a third of the particulate matter in Canada’s air came from forest fires, and the cost of dealing with the medical implications of that was rivaled only by the cost of lost timber itself. “However,” that paper reads, “air quality concerns are not typically included in resource allocation decisions in fire management.” Just ask the residents of Kuala Lumpur….

That’s one of the reasons this new study matters. “The design of efficient wildfire programs requires an understanding of the ‘values at risk’ or—alternatively put—the expected benefits from preventing or suppressing a fire event,” the authors write.

For example, preemptive fuel reduction efforts may be more cost-effective in an area that is upwind from a large population zone, ceteris paribus. The same rationale holds for the allocation of combative resources after a fire has started. Furthermore, reducing wildfire smoke via such interventions may produce net gains even at a large distance from the impact area.

In other words, even where there isn’t a nearby fire, there may be smoke.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.