Scientific explainer | The uneven consequences of smoke
Around the American West, forest fires are increasing in size and frequency. In California, the list of the top 20 records is revealing: 15 of the most destructive, nine of the largest, and seven of the deadliest forest fires have occurred since 2015.
At the same time, urbanization brings communities together and forest fires. the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) is the fastest growing type of land use in the continental United States, both in terms of geographic reach (a 33% increase from 1990 to 2010) and the number of new homes built (32 million from 1990 to 2015). On average, 2.5 million American homes within a mile of fire zones are threatened by man-made wildfires each year.
The size and intensity of these forest fires can generate significant amounts of smoke, which persists and often accumulates in suffocating fashion for days or weeks. Smoke from forest fires is also extremely mobile, capable of traveling long distances across state and national borders. It night city dwellers hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away.
Many questions remain about the social and economic the costs of forest fires. But a lot is known about life in California and the American West under climate change: living with wildfires means live with the smoke of forest fires.
Smoke can travel thousands of miles, and some research suggests that old-fashioned smoke is more toxic than fresh smoke. However, a huge dose of fresh smoke is likely to be more toxic than the smaller dose of aged smoke. The bottom line is, smoke is bad for you, whether it’s new or old. pic.twitter.com/WtTCGwwBbs
– Mike Flannigan (@mikeflannigan) September 12, 2020
Forest fire smoke research highlights negative health effects to breathe smoke from forest fires. There are concomitant effects on respiratory ailments associated with Covid-19 pandemic and other diseases caused by air pollution. Several decades of regulatory achievements are undermined by this rise of pyro-particulate matter.
Make things worse toxic elements often found in smoke – the result of forest fires that ravage plastics, metals and other man-made materials and chemicals in the landscape.
How abundance and vulnerability shape the effects of forest fire smoke
The harmful effects of these dystopian atmospheres are not felt uniformly across society. The impacts are very unequal and linked to growing disparities in wealth. Those who can afford to isolate themselves from smoke – both at work and at home – can reduce their exposure to harmful air. Yet others who live and work in more permeable environments – often for lack of choice – must persist despite greater exposure to smoke. Smoke from forest fires thus exposes and exacerbates the main disparities in social vulnerability and pre-existing social inequalities.
In addition, the pursuit and protection of economic growth in suburban and peri-urban landscapes has led to land management practices that increase overall smoke production and societal exposure.
Our research explores the links between wealth and vulnerability to disasters, and suggests that it would be more useful to view risk through a framework based on processes we call the Affluence-vulnerability interface (AVI), instead of the location-based framework of the WUI. The AVI framework offers three previews. First, it shows that social wealth does not alleviate social vulnerability. In fact, the pursuit of wealth and economic development can produce and exacerbate vulnerabilities. Second, it extends the analysis of social vulnerability beyond low-income regions to include expressions of vulnerability in largely wealthy contexts. Third, AVI improves understanding of how psychosocial characteristics, and not just socio-economic factors, can influence people’s vulnerability. Psychosocial considerations help us understand how an individual’s physical and mental health is influenced by both psychological factors and their surrounding social environment.
The case of the 2020 California wildfire season
Two social conditions highlight how the impacts of wildfire smoke during the unstable 2020 wildfire season were shaped by conditions of abundance and vulnerability: (a) homes and homelessness and (b ) essential outdoor workers.
Homes and homeless
Body exposure to forest fire smoke is influenced by a number of factors. The structural barriers that separate our bodies and respiratory systems from polluted atmospheres are the most fundamental.
To an extreme are those who live in temperature-controlled bunker-type homes with state-of-the-art heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. AT the other extreme are homeless populations who live and breathe in the most toxic and unsanitary conditions of air quality. Between the two extremes, a range of living conditions and housing types influence levels of smoke protection. These range from mobile homes and older homes with unsealed windows to more modern homes with airtight windows and “smart” air purification systems.
These differences suggest a strong link between wealth and vulnerability, as those who can afford to isolate themselves from the outside elements are much less vulnerable to the damaging effects of smoke.
Of course, the consequences of inhaling smoke go beyond the immediate health effects. Chronic health problems can have a cascading effect, affecting an individual’s ability to function or live optimally. This elevates mental stress levels, which can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. These cumulative effects remind us that psychosocial adaptive capacity is an important consideration when caring for vulnerable people.
Essential outdoor workers
Work environments also influence social vulnerability to smoke from forest fires and reveal how socio-economic precariousness increases risk factors. Workers who spend their days working outdoors will be much more exposed to smoke from forest fires than workers who stay inside ventilated buildings.
Consider farm workers in the Central Valley of California working amidst a smoky sky, as they pick vegetables for consumers around the world. The outward-looking nature of the work of this essential workforce can lead to high exposure to smoke, which is insufficiently addressed by professionals. health and safety policy and local labor regulations.
Diseases caused by smoke inhalation exacerbate unfair working conditions that leave many people without adequate health insurance and access to comprehensive health services. These vulnerable bodies, battered by the effects of climate change, wildfires and the current pandemic, help feed America while enabling massive profits for segments of the agricultural economy.
Another essential outside workforce – forest firefighters –also face bodily difficulties, as they face massive and smoke-producing conflagrations across the region. This population includes seasonal and volunteer firefighters who often do not have health coverage all year round. This also includes the incarcerated firefighters who are compelled to serve valiantly in order to win the applause of “good behavior” from their superiors.
The intimate working conditions of firefighters can also worsen respiratory complications associated with COVID-19. Typically, these firefighters receive little or no compensation for the ailments suffered while protecting homes and other valuable real estate, often made up of affluent communities and second homes on the urban outskirts. Again, wealth and vulnerability coincide, as efforts to protect private wealth have led to increased exposure to smoke from underfunded rescuers.
The smoke has a revealing effect in exposing and exacerbating chronic social and housing inequalities in the region. Smoke also reveals the communities and development interests that could benefit from the work of essential but vulnerable labor.
Smoke from mega-forest fires has become part of our complex and troubling regional ecology. Given climate and demographic changes, the extraordinary social and economic costs of a smoky sky in 2020 are likely to be a common feature of the global climate crisis.
In other words, unless emergency managers, health officials and policy makers begin to see the causes and consequences of wildfire smoke through an AVI lens. This will mean putting in place policies that prevent widespread urban sprawl and prioritize modernization for safer homes, especially in low income communities. This means creating pop-up N95 mask distribution centers during high-smoke events and enforcing more socially just living and working standards for essential workers outside. It also means embracing sustainable fuel reduction and indigenous fire regimes that create less smoke for shorter periods of time to alleviate the lethal smoke levels felt during firestorms.
If we fail to change our relationship to fire and to each other, massive smoke events will continue to ravage the most vulnerable among us.