Forest fires are the result of a combustion reaction involving oxygen, heat, and fuel, and burn on average 2.3 million hectares of Canada’s forest each year (SciShow, 2014; Van Wagner, 2015). There’s no doubt that forest fires play an important role in ecosystem regeneration; however, climate change is disrupting fire regimes by altering the size, intensity, frequency and type of forest fires (De Groot et al., 2013). As climate change progresses, research indicates that the detrimental impacts of forest fires will be overwhelming. With regards to humankind, increased amounts of forest fire smoke will reduce air quality, which poses a serious threat to human health (Cascio, 2017).
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The Prairie Climate Centre (2018) explains that climate change heightens three key factors for a successful fire: fuel, ignition, and weather. Fuel encompasses anything that can catch fire, which are commonly things like dried grass, leaves and brush. Global warming has resulted in a rise in average annual temperatures, increasing evaporation and decreasing rainfall (The Climate Reality Project [TCRP], 2017). This increases the fuel aridity – or deficiency of moisture – making it much easier for fuel to ignite and forest fires to spread (Prairie Climate Centre, 2018). Higher temperatures also result in longer fire seasons; since forest fires begin to ignite about a month after snow melts, shorter winters will increase the period of time that fires can start (TCRP, 2017).
What’s more, warmer and drier weather favours the survival and reproduction of destructive insects like the mountain pine beetle (Prairie Climate Centre, 2018). These insects kill host trees, leaving behind standing deadwood that acts as a major fuel source, promoting longevity of forest fires (Prairie Climate Centre, 2018). Not only that, but rapid warming of the Artic has reduced atmospheric circulation in the Northern Hemisphere during the summer (Coumou et al., 2015). This means that periods of hot, dry and windy weather will persist for longer, increasing the likelihood of extreme, prolonged forest fires (Mann et al., 2017).
Increasingly erratic, unpredictable weather is another downfall of climate change. This means more severe storms, which is notable considering lightning is responsible for approximately half of Canada’s forest fires (Van Wagner, 2015). A climate modelling system projects that the incidence of lightning-induced fires will increase as much as 80% by the end of the 21st Century (Wotton et al., 2005). This is concerning because lightning often starts fires in remote areas, which makes them harder to locate and reach, and can equate to much larger areas burned (TCRP, 2017). Finally, not only do wildfires release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but they also reduce the number of trees available to absorb it, perpetuating the problem of climate change and wildfires in a “dangerous feedback loop” (TCRP, 2017).
It is undeniable that climate change has worsened and will continue to worsen forest fires in terms of frequency, size, and intensity. Unfortunately, this has spillover effect on human well-being, since forest fire smoke has detrimental health consequences. Cascio’s (2017) systematic review found a positive association between wildlife smoke exposure and respiratory morbidity. Respiratory morbidity covers a wide range of conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis and pneumonia (Cascio, 2017). This association can be attributed to the constituents of wildfire smoke, where levels of carbon monoxide, methane and nitrous oxide are higher-than-normal, and can have toxic effects (Cascio, 2017).
Additionally, wildfire smoke contains air particles called particulate matter (PM) that vary in size and can irritate the airway (Fowler, 2013). Even small amounts of inhaled PM can compromise airway function, making the lungs more susceptible to viruses and bacteria that can result in infections (Cascio, 2017). Further research by Haikerwal et al. (2015) found statistically significant evidence to support the link between PM exposure and out-of-hospital cardiac arrests.
Perhaps most concerning is Cascio’s (2017) finding of the association between wildfire smoke exposure and all-cause mortality. For example, smoke exposure to the fetus during pregnancy is linked to low birth weight, which suggests lasting impacts on infant development (Holstius et al., 2012). Some studies even found that human inhalation of polluted air may have long-term effects like lung cancer (Fowler, 2013).
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There’s no doubt that wildfire smoke poses a threat to human health, and the associated healthcare costs are also a cause for concern. A 2008 fire in North Carolina that burned 40,000 acres cost $20 million in suppression efforts… and over $48.4 million in health care costs (Cascio, 2017). Current estimates for annual global deaths due to forest fire smoke is 339,000 people, a number that will likely increase due to the effects of climate change (Cascio, 2017). The best way to minimize smoke impact is to leave the affected area; however, Fowler (2013) points out that there are many logistical complications and socio-economic barriers associated with evacuation.
If evacuation isn’t necessary, smoke exposure can be mitigated by installing air filters in the home and workplace (California Air Resources Board [CARB], 2016). Air conditioners are an effective way to filter air, along with more advance air purifying systems called High Efficiency Particulate (HEPA) filters (CARB, 2016). A study of 200 homes in Taipei tested the effectiveness of home air filters against PM, and found that filtration decreased biological markers for inflammation and oxidative stress associated with cardiovascular diseases (Chuang et al., 2017). CARB (2016) notes that air cleaners and HEPA filters should be purchased in advance of smoke emergencies, because going outside during a forest fire can be hazardous.
Although forest fires can be beneficial in moderation, climate change has blown them out of proportion. Higher temperatures, drier landscapes, and severe weather patters have created forest fires of monstrous intensity and proportions. Unfortunately, wildfire smoke exposure has serious consequences on human health, favouring respiratory complications and increasing risk for disease. Researchers and public health officials urge the use of air conditioners and HEPA filters as a preventative measure against smoke, but it’s far from a solution. It’s time to start taking climate change more seriously… before we’re suffocated by smoke.
- California Air Resources Board. (2016, May). Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials. Retrieved from https://www3.epa.gov/airnow/wildfire_may2016.pdf
- Cascio, W. E. (2017). Wildland fire smoke and human health. Science of the Total Environment, 624, 586–595. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.12.086
- Chuang, H. C., Ho, K. F., Lin, L. Y., Chang, T. Y., Hong, G. B., Ma, C. M., & Chuang, K. J. (2017). Long-term indoor air conditioner filtration and cardiovascular health: A randomized crossover intervention study. Environment International, 106, 91–96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2017.06.008
- Coumou, D., Lehmann, J., & Beckmann, J. (2015). The weakening summer circulation in the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes. Science, 348(6232), 324–327. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1261768
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- Haikerwal, A., Akram, M., Monaco, A. Del, Smith, K., Sim, M. R., Meyer, M., Tonkin, A. M., Abramson, M. J., & Dennekamp, M. (2015). Impact of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure during wildfires on cardiovascular health outcomes. Journal of the American Heart Association, 4(7). https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.114.001653
- Holstius, D. M., Reid, C. E., Jesdale, B. M., & Morello-Frosch, R. (2012). Birth weight following pregnancy during the 2003 southern California wildfires. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120(9), 1340–1345. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1104515
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- SciShow. (2014, September 25). The Science of Wildfires. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8OrmGAIqI4&t=276s
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