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Climate Change



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California Environmental Health Tracking Program

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Last Edited: 4/15/2014

Wildfires and Climate Change

High temperatures, strong winds, and dry conditionsall favorable conditions for wildfireswill increase with climate change.  As California’s climate changes, wildfires will become more frequent and severe.  In addition to destroying wildlife and homes, wildfires have serious health impacts.  These health impacts include death and injury from burns or smoke inhalation, as well as the traumatic stress of experiencing such a disaster.

 

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How does climate change affect wildfires?

Climate change will create favorable conditions for wildfires in California, including:

  • Higher temperatures
  • Strong winds
  • Drought, which contributes to dry vegetation
  • Dry soil  Climate change will result in earlier snow melt in California.  Instead of slowly saturating the soil, this water will run off into the ocean via rivers and streams.

These conditions will increase our wildfire risk, and overall, wildfires are expected to occur more often and increase in severity.  Additionally, as suburban areas encroach on wild lands, more communities in California are at risk from wildfires.

 

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How do wildfires impact health?

Wildfires have an immediate and long-lasting effect on our health.

  • Burns and smoke inhalation
    • Residents in the fire's path, as well as first responders and emergency workers, often experience injuries from burns and smoke inhalation, some of which can be severe or fatal.
  • Eye and respiratory illness
    • Large fires, like the series of devastating wildfires in Los Angeles in 2009, increase air pollution in the immediate vicinity of the fires and in surrounding areas. Fire-related air pollution increases the risk for eye and respiratory illness, and this risk may continue even after the exposure to air pollution subsides.
  • Mental health
    • Wildfires have a significant impact on our health even after the fires are put out. A fire has a lasting impact on mental health from the traumatic stress of experiencing the loss of a community, home, or loved ones during a wildfire.

After the 2007 California wildfires, many of those displaced from their homes reported having physical and mental health needs that were left unmet.1

 

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Who will be most affected?

  • Individuals living near wild lands, brush areas, or other areas with increased fire risks
  • Individuals living alone
  • Individuals with respiratory diseases
  • The elderly
  • Workers who are at the front lines of battling the fires (firefighters, EMT, police, etc.)

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Resources on climate change and wildfires

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1. Jenkins JL, Hsu EB, Sauer LM, et al. Prevalence of Unmet healthcare needs and description of healthcare seeking behavior amongst displaced persons following the 2007 California wildfires. Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2009. 3(2 suppl):S24-28.