How do forest fires in Western countries affect mental health? | Best states
This year’s fire season surpasses last year’s record season in California, consuming more than double the area burned at that time last year. In the Golden State and throughout the western United States, the fire season begins earlier and ends later, as more than, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection 4,900 fires have been on fire in the state since the beginning of the year and pose a widespread threat to communities across the region.
But aside from the devastating damage that fires can wreak in communities, experts are only just beginning to understand the mental health risks of fire and smoke, according to a recently published study report from the University of California – Los Angeles.
“Forest fires are increasing in frequency and severity every year, and the impact they have on people becomes more apparent every year,” one of the report’s authors, May MT Kyaw, said in a press release. “They displace entire communities and their smoke can affect regions hundreds of miles away for days, weeks, or months. However, very little is known about the impact of forest fires on mental health.”
The report comes after a 2019 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine sounded the alarm over the lack of research into the effects of forest fires on mental health, highlighting the “underestimated and under-explored” field.
As part of its analysis, the report examined “Solastalgie”, a term coined in 2005 by Australian sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht to describe a “location-based distress people experience when environments and landscapes change (but not necessarily lost) due to such events.” Environmental degradation and droughts, “reads the report, which has since been expanded to include forest fires. The suffering can range from” general exposure to serious health problems and problems including physical and mental illness and substance abuse “.
“After wildfire, residents returning to a devastated landscape are constantly reminded by the sight of their trauma, in addition to the financial, health, and social burdens of rebuilding homes and communities,” the report reads Losses That Can Lead to Solastalgia.
The report finds that climate change is responsible for increased “incidence, duration, and severity of forest fires,” with the fire season lasting longer and smoke spreading miles beyond the reach of a fire.
Understanding the psychological effects of forest fire smoke is crucial as the world enters a time when forest fire smoke events are long-lasting events, according to the report.
However, compared to understanding the mental health effects of forest fires, “understanding the mental health effects of wildland smoke is still in its infancy,” the report said.
Of the existing research on the effects of forest fire smoke on mental health, the report highlighted a study of children and adolescents exposed to smoke, suggesting that closeness and the perceived threat of fire are factors that affect stress and emotional well-being . Another study found that persistent smoke affected mental and emotional health after fires in the Canadian Northwest Territories. Parishioners reported fear, stress, isolation and insecurity, and a majority reported a “direct link between the forest fires and smoke and a decrease in their mental and emotional health” from being incarcerated at home.
The report also asks, “What if forest fires become chronic and persistent?” quote Australian bushfires 2019 and California’s 2020 wildfire season. In these cases in particular, the report concluded that exposure to wildland smoke may have implications for mental health, but notes that the literature is inconsistent.
David Eisenman, lead author of the report, compared isolation from forest fires and forest fire smoke conditions to lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Living under the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic gives a sense of what it is like,” Eisenman said in a press release. “Isolation from the community and the fear of leaving home to venture into the outside world is inherently dangerous – this could sum up the isolating and frightening experience of the pandemic and ongoing forest fire smoke incidents.”