How Do Wildfires in Western States Impact Mental Health?

This year’s fire season is outpacing last year’s record-breaking season in California, consuming more than double the acreage burned by this time last year. In the Golden State and throughout the Western U.S., fire season is starting earlier and ending later, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as more than 4,900 fires have burned in the state since the year began, posing an extended threat to communities throughout the region.

But besides the devastating damage fire can inflict on communities, experts are only beginning to understand the mental health risk of fire and smoke, according to a recent report from the University of California–Los Angeles.

“Wildfires are occurring with increasing frequency and severity each year, and each year their impacts on people become clearer,” one of the report’s authors, May M.T. Kyaw, said in a press release. “They displace entire communities, and their smoke can affect regions hundreds of miles away, and for days, weeks, or months at a time. However, very little is understood about how wildfires affect mental health.”

The report comes after a 2019 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine sounded the alarm on the lack of research related to the effect of wildfires on mental health, highlighting the “under-appreciated and under-researched” field.

As part of its analysis, the report examined “solastalgia,” a term coined by Australian sustainability professor Glenn Albrecht in 2005, describing a “place based-distress people feel when environments and landscapes are transformed (but not necessarily lost) due to such occurrences as environmental degradations and droughts,” the report says, which has since been extended to include wildfires. The suffering can range from “generalized distress to serious health and problems including physical and mental illness and drug abuse.”

[Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara: Californians May Need to ‘Learn to Live With Fire’]

“After a wildfire, residents who return home to a devastated landscape face, in addition to the financial, health and social stresses of rebuilding homes and community, face an ever-present reminder through sight of their trauma,” the report says, noting that fires leave visual daily reminders of loss that can lead to solastalgia.

The report notes that climate change is responsible for increased “frequency, duration and severity of wildfires,” with fire seasons lasting longer and smoke extending miles beyond a fire’s reach.

According to the report, “Understanding the mental health effects of wildfire smoke is crucial as the world enters a time in which wildfire smoke events are prolonged events.”

Compared to the understanding of wildfire’s impact on mental health, though, “the understanding of the mental health impacts of wildland smoke is in its infancy,” the report says.

Of the existing research on the effects of wildfire smoke on mental health, the report highlighted a study on children and adolescents who were exposed to smoke, which suggested that proximity and the perceived threat of fire were factors that affect stress and emotional well-being. Another study found that persistent smoke had an effect on mental and emotional health following fires in the Canadian Northwest Territories. Community members reported feelings of fear, stress, isolation and uncertainty, and a majority reported a “direct connection between the wildfires and smoke and a decrease in their mental and emotional health,” as they were confined to their homes.

[READ: With Biden Climate Goals on Horizon, States Continue Own Efforts]

The report also posits the question, “What happens when wildfires become chronic and persistent?” citing 2019’s Australian bushfires and California’s 2020 wildfire season. In these instances in particular, the report concluded that exposure to wildland smoke may have mental health impacts, but notes that the literature is inconsistent.

David Eisenman, lead author of the report, likened the isolation of wildfire and wildfire smoke conditions to the lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Living under the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic gives some sense of what this is like,” Eisenman said in a press release. “The isolation from community and the dread that leaving the house to go into the world outside is fundamentally dangerous—this might sum up the isolating and fearsome experience of the pandemic and persistent wildfire smoke events.”

More from U.S. News

Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara: Californians May Need to ‘Learn to Live With Fire’

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This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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