The unequal social consequences of wildfire smoke in California

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By Gregory Simon and Christine Eriksen

Around the American West, wildfires are increasing in size and frequency. In California, the list of Top-20 records are telling: 15 of the most destructive, nine of the largest, and seven of the deadliest wildfires have occurred since 2015.

At the same time, urbanization is bringing communities and wildfires closer together. The Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) is the fastest-growing land use type in the mainland United States both in terms of geographical span (a 33 percent increase from 1990-2010) and the number of new homes built (32 million from 1990-2015). On average, 2.5 million U.S. homes located within one mile of fire perimeters are threatened by human-started wildfires each year. 

The size and intensity of these wildfires can generate significant amounts of smoke, which often lingers and accumulates in suffocating fashion for days or weeks. Wildfire smoke is also extremely mobile, capable of traveling long distances across state and national borders. It harms city dwellers hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Many questions remain about the social and economic costs of wildfires. But this much is known about life in California and the American West under climate change: living with wildfires means living with wildfire smoke.

Research on wildfire smoke highlights the negative health effects of breathing smoke from wildfires. There are concomitant effects on respiratory ailments associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and other maladies from atmospheric pollution. Many decades of regulatory accomplishments are being undermined by this upswing in pyro-particulate matter.

Making matters worse are toxic elements oftentimes found within smoke—a result of wildfires ravaging plastics, metals and other human-made materials and chemicals within the landscape. 

How Affluence and Vulnerability Shape the Impacts of Wildfire Smoke 

The ill-effects of these dystopic atmospheres are not experienced uniformly across society. The impacts are highly uneven and related to growing wealth disparities. Those with the means to insulate themselves from smoke—both in work and home environments—can reduce their exposure to noxious air. Yet others who live and work in more permeable environments—often because of lack of choice—must persist despite greater smoke exposure. Wildfire smoke thus exposes and exacerbates key disparities in social vulnerability and pre-existing social inequalities. 

Furthermore, the pursuit and protection of economic growth in suburban and exurban landscapes has led to land management practices that increase overall smoke production and societal exposure. 

Our research explores connections between wealth and vulnerability to disasters, and suggests it would be more valuable to view risk through a process-based framework we call the Affluence-Vulnerability Interface (AVI), instead of the place-based framework of the WUI. The AVI framework offers three insights. First, it shows that societal wealth does not mitigate social vulnerability. In fact, the pursuit of wealth and economic development may produce and exacerbate vulnerabilities. Second, it extends analysis of social vulnerability beyond low-income regions to include expressions of vulnerability within largely affluent contexts. Third, the AVI improves understanding of how psychosocial characteristics, not just socioeconomic factors, may influence people’s vulnerability. Psychosocial considerations help us understand how an individual’s physical and mental health is influenced both by psychological factors and their surrounding social environment.

The Case of the 2020 Wildfire Season in California

Two social conditions highlight how the impacts of wildfire smoke during the volatile 2020 wildfire season were shaped by conditions of affluence and vulnerability: (a) homes and homelessness and (b) outdoor essential workers.

Homes and homelessness

Bodily exposure to wildfire smoke is influenced by a range of factors. Most fundamental are the structural barriers that separate our bodies and respiratory systems from polluted atmospheres. 

At one extreme are those who live in bunker-like, climate-controlled homes with state-of-the-art heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. At the other extreme are houseless populations who live and breathe amidst even the most toxic and unhealthy air quality conditions. Between the two extremes, a range of living conditions and housing types influence levels of protection from smoke. These range from mobile homes and older homes with unsealed windows to more modern homes with airtight windows and “smart” air purification systems. 

These differences suggest a strong link between affluence and vulnerability, as those who can afford to insulate themselves from the elements outside are much less vulnerable to the ill-effects of smoke. 

Of course, the consequences of breathing smoke extend beyond immediate health impacts. Chronic health ailments may have a cascading effect, affecting an individual’s capacity to function or live optimally. This elevates levels of mental stress, which may exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. These compounding effects remind us that psychosocial coping capacity is an important consideration when caring for vulnerable people

Outdoor essential workers

Work environments also influence social vulnerability to wildfire smoke and expose how socioeconomic precarity heightens risk factors. Laborers who spend their days working outside will have much higher exposure to wildfire smoke than workers who remain inside ventilated buildings. 

Consider agricultural workers in California’s Central Valley toiling amidst smoky skies, as they pick vegetables for consumers around the world. The outdoor nature of labor for this essential workforce can lead to high smoke exposure, which is inadequately addressed by occupational health and safety policy and local labor regulations. 

Ailments from smoke inhalation exacerbate unfair labor conditions that leave many individuals without adequate health insurance or access to comprehensive healthcare services. These vulnerable bodies, battered by the effects of climate change, wildfires and the current pandemic, are helping to feed America while also enabling massive profits for segments of the agricultural economy.

Another essential outdoor workforce—wildland firefighters—also face bodily hardship, as they confront massive, smoke-spewing conflagrations across the region. This population includes seasonal and volunteer firefighters who often lack year-round health coverage. It also includes unpaid incarcerated firefighters who are obligated to serve valiantly in order to earn “good behavior” plaudits from their superiors. 

The intimate working conditions of fire crews may also exacerbate respiratory complications associated with COVID-19. In general, these firefighters receive little if any compensation for the ailments sustained while protecting homes and other valuable real estate assets—often composed of affluent communities and second homes at the urban fringe. Here again, affluence and vulnerability coincide as efforts to protect private wealth have led to heightened smoke exposure for under-resourced emergency responders. 

Actions for Change

Smoke has a revealing effect by exposing and exacerbating chronic social and housing inequities around the region. Smoke also reveals the communities and development interests that stand to benefit from the labor of essential yet vulnerable workforces. 

Smoke from mega-wildfire is now a part of our complex and unsettling regional ecology. Given climatic and population changes, the extraordinary social and economic costs of smoke-filled skies during 2020 are likely to be a common feature of the global climate crisis

That is, unless emergency managers, health officials and policymakers start to view the causes and consequences of wildfire smoke through an AVI lens. This will mean enacting policies that prevent widespread urban sprawl and prioritize retrofitting for safer homes, particularly in low-income communities. It means creating pop-up N95 mask distribution centers during high-smoke events, and enforcing more socially-just living and work standards for outdoor essential workers. It also means embracing sustainable fuel reduction and Indigenous fire regimes that create less smoke for shorter periods in order to mitigate the deadly smoke levels experienced during firestorms. 

If we fail to change our relationship to fire and one another, massive smoke events will continue to ravage the most vulnerable among us.

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