Policies to Mitigate Wildfire Impacts Have Public Health Implications, Amplified Amid COVID

As the western United States enters the 2020 wildfire season with anticipated above normal significant fire potential, a new report from Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) provides the most expansive synthesis to date on the public health dimensions of wildfire and California’s approaches to wildfire prevention and the mitigation of wildfire-related impacts.

Since the beginning of 2020 California has seen more than 78,000 acres burned as a result of at least 5,200 fires across the state. To prevent wildfire and to mitigate wildfire impacts, California agencies and utility providers have adopted approaches such as prescribed burns, wood biomass utilization for energy production, chemical fire suppression, and most recently, the widespread de-energization of electrical lines through public safety power shutoffs (PSPS). While each of these approaches are important pillars of wildfire management, the near- and long-term public health implications of these strategies had not been thoroughly characterized.

In the new report, ‘The Public Health Dimensions of California Wildfire and Wildfire Prevention, Mitigation and Suppression’, researchers synthesize the public health dimensions of wildfire prevention, mitigation and suppression strategies, including a detailed review of the impacts from the 2019 California public safety power shutoffs (PSPS). “Continuity of electricity is fundamental to supporting critical health-protective services, such as indoor air filtration, air conditioning and refrigeration during wildfires and other natural disasters,” said lead researcher Lee Ann Hill, MPH, Senior Scientist at PSE. “Distributed clean energy resources can be strategically deployed to provide backup power that can support critical services during wildfires, public safety power shutoffs, and other natural disasters and grid outages.”

In contrast to diesel generators commonly used for backup power, distributed energy resources, such as solar and battery storage, can provide simultaneous climate and air quality benefits in communities that may be particularly vulnerable to wildfire, PSPS and other natural disasters.

In the report, the authors also outline policies and strategies aimed to reduce public health risks associated with wildfire itself and with approaches to wildfire prevention and mitigation. “Public health data should be central to decision-making regarding wildfire management. The need for public health perspectives is further amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which presents additional challenges related to wildfire preparedness and response,” said Hill.

Negative air quality impacts from wildfire smoke like those seen in recent years may also hold further implications for respiratory health conditions associated with COVID-19, the report found. “The air quality impacts associated with large wildfire events can be widespread, impacting air quality in neighboring regions and states,” explained Hill. “Evaluating air quality data across the state, we observed a strong relationship between active wildfire and exceedance of regional levels of particulate matter.” Exposure to wildfire smoke may worsen COVID-19 symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Long-term exposure to particulate matter, a primary constituent of wildfire smoke, has been associated with an increased risk of death from COVID-19 in the United States.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers highlight that typical wildfire response activities do not align with COVID-19 social distancing measures. Evacuations involve transporting and sheltering displaced people to indoor environments where large numbers of individuals may come into contact. Additionally, clean air spaces — public spaces promoted to provide access to filtered air during days with heavy wildfire smoke — also bring populations together in enclosed, indoor spaces that could increase the risk of COVID-19 spread in communities, adds Hill. The researchers conclude that these actions and health interventions may need to be reevaluated and adapted amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, an effort that is currently underway in California.

“Preparedness is key. State and regional agencies and the general public should be aware of the intersection of public health risks posed by wildfires, PSPS, and COVID-19,” concludes Hill.

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