Study: Long fire seasons raise concerns about the mental health of residents and responders

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Firefighters fight the 2018 Woolsey Fire in Ventura County. Courtesy of the Ventura County Fire Department

Climate change is leading to longer fire seasons and raising concerns about the psychological effects of prolonged exposure to forest fire smoke, according to a new report.

Longer fire seasons pose a threat to communities threatened by the fire itself, and these changes can result in weeks or even months of smoke exposure in areas far from the fires.

After meeting at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, UCLA’s Center for Healthy Climate Solutions and Climate Resolve are working together to shed light on the mental and physical health effects of forest fires.

In the report, researchers say government, public health officials, and the public in general need to understand the mental health effects of forest fires as the world enters a time when events are prolonged.

“What happens when forest fires become chronic and persistent, as they did in Australia in 2019 and California in 2020?” David Eisenman from UCLA Fielding School of Public Health

He is also Professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine and Director of the Fielding School’s Climate Solutions Center and the Center for Public Health and Disasters.

“Living under the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic gives a sense of what it is like,” said Eisenman, who has studied the aftermath of the disasters from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the 100,000-acre Woolsey Fire in 2018, and told community the fear of leaving the house to go outside is inherently dangerous – this could sum up the isolating and frightening experience of the pandemic and ongoing forest fire smoke incidents. “

The report – Mental Health Effects of Forest Fire Smoke, Solastalgia, and Nontraditional Firefighters – was written by Eisenman; May MT Kyaw, a medical student at UCLA; and Kristopher Eclarino of Climate Resolve, a Los Angeles-based not-for-profit organization.

The researchers define “solastalgia” as a lived experience of stress from the loss of landscape that intersects with the broader themes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fear, grief, and other emotional and mental effects of climate change and natural disasters.

In 2019, as part of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the National Academy of Medicine sponsored a workshop on the public health impact of California wildfires. Eisenman served as the organizer and presenter.

The review discussed, among other things, the potential health effects of particulate matter air pollution (PM2.5 and PM10) and whether smoke from forest fires can have similar or different toxicities and the resulting effects on physical and mental health.

This in turn led to the current research.

“As forest fires become a growing public health threat, it is clear that the mental health effects of their smoke need to be investigated,” said Eclarino. “There is a clear need for research on the effects of smoking, especially on prolonged and repeated events, and on the side effects of various responder groups.”


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