June historically marked the start of ‘wildfire season.’ Unfortunately, the U.S. is now seeing catastrophic wildfires throughout the year. The increase in intensity and frequency in wildfires is a huge health threat. In fact, wildfire is one of the reasons that more than 63 million people live in areas with spikes of deadly particle pollution.
In addition to our resources to help individuals protect their health from wildfire smoke and our advocacy to address climate change, we wanted to see what additional policies we might support that could help mitigate the dangers of wildfire smoke. That’s why we recently released a new report that looked at the current research on lung health benefits and risks of prescribed burns.
“We commissioned this report to learn more about the impacts of prescribed burning, and how this approach may have the potential to help protect the lung health of Americans from the growing threats posed by wildfires,” Will Barrett explained.
How Are Wildfires Harmful?
According to our 2022 “State of the Air” report, wildfires in the western U.S. were responsible for a sharp rise in particle pollution in several states. This year’s report also found an increase of close to 8.9 million more people living in areas with failing grades for unhealthy levels of short-term particle pollution compared to last year’s report.
Wildfire smoke can be extremely harmful to everyone’s lungs, even healthy adults. Smoke exposure from wildfires can harm anyone nearby and can travel thousands of miles downwind, across states, countries, and even oceans. Smoke inhalation can cause heart attacks, asthma episodes and can lead to premature death. Though even healthy adults can be at risk of coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing, some groups are especially at risk. This includes children, older adults and people with asthma, COPD, chronic heart disease and diabetes. Pregnant people exposed to wildfire smoke are more likely to experience adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth.
Do We Need Prescribed Burns?
Prescribed fire means the ignition of an area, planned in accordance with applicable regulations and laws, as a means of reducing “fuel loadings” (combustible content that could burn during wildfires). The hope is that by planning a burn, prescribed fires can mitigate the negative air quality, health, and safety impacts of large-scale wildfires.
The report found that using prescribed burns under the right conditions can mitigate the negative impacts of large-scale fires. The research shows that historical fire suppression policies are not sufficient for longer-term fire management. These strategies result in increased fire intensity and an increase in the number of people exposed during a single smoke event. This means that under the right conditions, prescribed fire can be an important tool to protect lung health from worse smoke impacts.
While increasing prescribed fire activities may contribute to local air quality impacts, prescribed fire can and should be conducted in ways that minimize harmful smoke exposure. This may be possible if the prescribed burns are implemented under planned, predictable circumstances where additional measures can be taken to minimize exposure to nearby populations. Of course, more research is needed to evaluate comparative risks of prescribed fire smoke and wildfire in an ongoing way.
You can now read the full report on our website.
What Can We Do?
As catastrophic wildfires put the health of more and more Americans at risk, immediate steps are needed to reduce health harm. Numerous strategies can be implemented to reduce public health impacts associated with wildfire smoke exposure, many of which also mitigate smoke exposure from prescribed burn activities. These strategies include air quality surveillance coupled with public outreach and public notification systems; indoor air filtration and clean air spaces; and additional emergency planning and response, including protections for vulnerable populations.
Visit Lung.org/wildfires for additional tips, fact sheets, videos and other resources.
Blog last updated: August 25, 2023