Firefighters battling the 2018 Woolsey Fire in Ventura County. Courtesy Ventura County Fire Department

Climate change is leading to longer fire seasons, prompting concerns about the mental health impacts of extended exposure to wildfire smoke, according to a new report.

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

Following a meeting at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, UCLA’s Center for Healthy Climate Solutions and Climate Resolve are partnering to shed light on the mental and physical health impacts of wildfires.

In the report, researchers say that government, public health agencies and the public generally need to understand the mental health impacts of wildfire as the world enters a time in which the events are prolonged.

“What happens when wildfires become chronic and persistent like they did in Australia in 2019 and California in 2020?” asked lead author Dr. David Eisenman, of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health

He’s also a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine, and a director at the Fielding School’s climate solutions center, along with the Center for Public Health and Disasters.

“Living under the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic gives some sense of what this is like,” said Eisenman, who has studied the aftermath of disasters from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the 100,000-acre Woolsey Fire in 2018. “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.”

The report – Mental Health Effects Of Wildfire Smoke, Solastalgia, and Non-Traditional Firefighters – was written by Eisenman; May M.T Kyaw, a medical student at UCLA; and Kristopher Eclarino, with Climate Resolve, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit.

The researchers define “solastalgia” as the lived experience of stress from the loss of landscape, which overlaps with the broader topics of post-traumatic stress disease (PTSD), anxiety, grief, and other emotional and mental impacts of climate change and natural disaster.

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

Among other issues, the review discussed the potential health effects of fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5 and PM10), and whether smoke from wildfires may have similar or different toxicities, and the resulting physical and mental health impacts.

This, in turn, led to the current research.

“It is clear that as wildfires increasingly become a public health threat, the effects of their smoke on mental health need to be studied,“ Eclarino said. “There is a clear need for research on the effects of smoke, especially prolonged events and repeated events, and research on the side effects of various responder groups.”

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