A year with historically widespread wildfires has meant many communities are dealing with a related danger – smoke.

“These worsening (wildfire) events are devastating communities, but they’re also posing significant health risks to regions distanced from the fires themselves due to the traveling smoke plume,” said presenter Caitlin Jones, a PhD student at the University of California-Davis.

Caitlin Jones and wildfire smoke statistics and pictures from presentation slidesDuring the APHA 2020 session “Climate Changes Health: Examining Co-Benefits While Cultivating Resilience and Equity,” Jones introduced a framework designed for public health to respond to the dangers of wildfire smoke.

This year, more than 50 million people on the West Coast have been exposed to unhealthy air — an increase of about 9 million over the previous-worst wildfire year, which was 2018. Jones, who joined the virtual session from her home in northern California, is among those who have been exposed.

“It has become pervasive in our lives, and we absolutely need to learn how to adapt,” she said as she showed pictures of how wildfires and smoke have impacted her community.

The framework Jones introduced balances human and ecological health, with the two interconnected in their relationship to smoke and health, she said. On the human-health side, wildfire smoke is known to carry pollutants that are harmful to health, with fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, being a key concern. Research has found these small, inhalable particles are associated with respiratory and cardiovascular health problems.

Jones said the framework can help identify interventions from the population-wide down to the individual level to prevent smoke exposure and to lessen the health consequences for those exposed.

An important part of the framework is that it doesn’t hinge on preventing all fires, she noted. Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem, Jones reminded attendees, and fire-suppression plans that cut out fires that might naturally occur in the ecosystem can have a negative overall impact.

“Unlike other natural hazards, people in communities have the power to shift (wildfires),” Jones said. “We can use these intervention opportunities to try and promote healthier fires.”

Photo by Aaron Warnick courtesy The Nation's Health.