New report weighs benefits and risks of prescribed fire to mitigate health harms of catastrophic wildfires.
SACRAMENTO, CA – Fueled by climate change, wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense – increasingly exposing more residents to the potentially deadly effects of breathing wildfire smoke. In just the past few years, Californians have experienced many of the most destructive wildfires in state history, and an active fire season is already well underway across the West. Today, the American Lung Association announced a new report, which finds that prescribed burning can be used to mitigate the negative air quality, health, and safety impacts of catastrophic wildfires.
The Lung Association’s report, “Can Prescribed Fires Mitigate Health Harm? A Review of Air Quality and Public Health Implications of Wildfire and Prescribed Fire,” prepared by PSE Healthy Energy, looks at the current research on the potential of prescribed burning to mitigate the increasing health and air quality risks from catastrophic wildfires. The report shows that wildfire activity is predicted to increase in the decades ahead and that historical fire suppression policies are insufficient for longer-term fire management, deferring rather than preventing catastrophic wildfires. The report finds that responsible prescribed burn activity can be used as a tool to help mitigate the devastating impacts of wildfires.
Wildfires have had a dramatic impact on air quality in recent years, adding to already significant baselines of unhealthy particle pollution in many California communities. The Lung Association’s 2022 “State of the Air” report found that eight of the Top Ten American cities with the most unhealthy particle pollution days are in California, and the Fresno area was ranked as the most polluted city in the nation. In fact, between 2018 and 2020, the city had 45 days where the short-term particle pollution was rated “red” for unhealthy and 5 days where it was rated air quality was rated “purple” for very unhealthy. Mono County experienced a stunning 18 days where air quality was rated as “maroon” for hazardous levels of particle pollution and twelve “very unhealthy” days reported in State of the Air 2022. These impacts were felt in many communities affected by historic wildfires over the past few years, both near and far from the original fires.
“Wildfire smoke can be extremely harmful to lungs, especially for outdoor workers, 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,” said Will Barrett, National Senior Director for Clean Air Advocacy with the American Lung Association. “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 health threats posed by wildfires. Since such measures also produce smoke that can be harmful to health, it was important for us to review and understand the latest research.”
While more research is needed to evaluate comparative risks of prescribed fire smoke and wildfire, using prescribed burns under the right conditions can simultaneously reduce fuels to reduce wildfire risk while supporting ecosystem health and resiliency. The report also found that although increasing prescribed burning activities may contribute to local air quality impacts, prescribed fire can be conducted in ways that minimize harmful smoke exposure. Expanded prescribed fire activities should be coupled with additional policies and best practices to mitigate potential harmful smoke exposure.
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.
About the American Lung Association
The American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease through education, advocacy and research. The work of the American Lung Association is focused on four strategic imperatives: to defeat lung cancer; to champion clean air for all; to improve the quality of life for those with lung disease and their families; and to create a tobacco-free future. For more information about the American Lung Association, a holder of the coveted 4-star rating from Charity Navigator and a Gold-Level GuideStar Member, or to support the work it does, call 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872) or visit: Lung.org.