The mounting wildfire crisis in the US could spark a spate of health problems in the coming years, scientists warn.
This year has seen more than 60,000 wildfires scorch more than 7.2 million acres of land in the US — up from 42,400 and 4.1 million in 2013.
Due to the warming climate, forest fires are becoming more frequent and more destructive. Warmer springs, longer dry summer seasons, and drier soils and vegetation provide excellent conditions for a fire.
Recent wildfires on the West Coast have released massive amounts of smoke that have spread across the country, covering cities as far east as the eastern US in a poisonous haze.
Exposure to the toxins in the smoke from wildfires is linked until increased flu seasonsa spike in cases of asthma, heart attacks, stroke, kidney problems, lung irritation, bronchitis, dementia and mental health problems.
Wildfire smoke contains tiny toxic particles known as PM2.5 – made from solid and liquid droplets of burned material such as vegetation and heavy metals.
PM2.5 is so small that it can seep into the bloodstream through the lungs and travel to important organs, including the brain.
Wildfires, which have mainly affected the west coast for years, have set fire to more than 7 million hectares of land. They have also emitted toxic smoke into eastern New York City, deteriorating air quality and endangering people’s health.
Left shows the number of wildfires from 1984 to 1999, and right shows the number from 2005 to 2018 – in the later years there was an increase in wildfires
Exposure to the toxic chemicals in wildfire smoke, created by melting vegetation, heavy metals and synthetic materials, leads to an increase in asthma, heart disease and lung irritation.
WARMING CLIMATE CAUSES WILDFIRE RISE
The growing wildfire crisis has fueled concerns that regional and global warming trends are leading to more extreme combustion.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder analyzed data on thousands of wildfires since 1984.
They found evidence that average fire incidents in regions of the US were four times greater, three times more frequent and more widespread in the 2000s than in the previous two decades.
The most extreme fires are also larger, more common and more likely to occur together with other extreme fires.
“This documented shift in fire patterns across most of the country is consistent with the palpable change in fire dynamics noted by the media, the public and firefighters,” they said.
Wildfires will scorch more than 7.2 million hectares of land in the US by 2022
That is more than the 58,900 fires that ravaged 6.5 million hectares in 2021.
Keith Bein, an associate professional researcher at the University of California, Davis told Pew: It happens more every summer… The fires are getting longer. Public exposure to the smoke is also increasing. Once-in-a-lifetime events take place every summer. This is a different kind of exposure.’
State public health officials and climate experts are most concerned about the tiny particulate matter that spreads through the air, a product of burning vegetation and man-made materials such as cars, roads and houses.
Erin Landguth, an associate professor at the University of Montana, said: “We know that hospitalizations for asthma and other respiratory diseases peak within days or weeks of wildfires… The thought that this could potentially lead to effects later and how that can affect our immune system is really scary.’
A fire can be caused by the extreme heat of the sun, a lightning strike or risky human actions such as throwing out a lit cigarette and putting out a campfire poorly.]
Dried out shrubs, leaves and trees, coupled with high temperatures and dry conditions, all contribute or cause a wildfire.
A series of wildfires on the west coast in 2021 spewed enough toxic smoke to float up to New York City, causing poor air quality and endangering public health. The mist lingered for days before a cold front washed it away.
Wildfire smoke creeping through the US affects the health of more people in the eastern US than those in the west, a study published in GeoHealth in 2021, partly due to higher population density.
A study that year by a group of researchers at Stanford University determined that wildfires were the cause up to 25 percent of dangerous air pollution across the country.
High concentrations of air pollution can also wreak havoc on a beleaguered immune system, with possible consequences for years to come.
The people most at risk for smoke from wildfires are those with respiratory conditions such as chronic lung disease and COPD, a deadly inflammatory disease that blocks airflow to the lungs.
Wildfires are expected to increase as climate change worsens with insufficient measures to curb it, according to to environmentalists. Areas once considered safe from wildfires, such as the Arctic, are “very likely to experience a significant increase in burning by the end of the century.”