Wildfires destroying California bring questions about health and climate

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California’s wildfires have destroyed homes and communities, and even people hundreds of miles away are feeling the effects of smoke. Stanford faculty weigh in on the health effects and increasing frequency of fires.

By Taylor Kubota

As wildfires continue to burn in Northern and Southern California, there are more questions than answers. What does smoke inhalation do to my health? What’s the evidence that these are caused by climate change? Can controlled burns fix our forests? Here is how some Stanford University experts answer and continue to tackle these complex concerns.

What kinds of research are we doing about the health effects of smoke?

At a multi-disciplinary briefing on “Fire and the Future of California Forests” in Sacramento in May 2018, Kari Nadeau, director of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford, said, “There is no safe distance away from a wildfire.” Even in areas where smoke-related particulates aren’t visible, they can still cause cancer, heart damage, immune problems and lung problems.

Nadeau and other researchers in the School of Medicine and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment have combined forces, with a focus on finding the best ways for people to protect themselves against air pollution, including wildfire smoke. As part of their research into the health effects of air pollution, these researchers are also looking at the health impact of controlled burns.

Are these fires really the result of climate change?

Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J Foundation Professor of Earth System Science at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), has found a relationship between climate change and extreme weather events like drought, which plays an important role in fire risk.

In a 2018 paper, the researchers investigated the difference between two scenarios: 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius of warming or 2 to 3 C of warming. Even in the first scenario, they found there would be a much higher risk of extreme weather like drought than what we experience now, with even more drastic increases in severe weather events under the second scenario.

“But the good news is that we don’t have to wait and play catch-up,” Diffenbaugh said, in a story about this research. “Instead, we can use this kind of research to make decisions that both build resilience now and help us be prepared for the climate that we will face in the future.”

In August, as fires raged in British Columbia, Rob Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor at Stanford Earth, wrote an op-ed for Scientific American about the problems he saw with the current administration’s climate change policies, which include a proposal to roll back vehicle fuel efficiency standards and the Clean Power Plan. He argued that although the West has a long history of wildfires, pollution from cars and power plants has worsened droughts and climate extremes, leading to more wildfires.

What do Stanford experts have to say about forest management and wildfires?

Fire often increases the diversity of plants in the affected area, which can lead to resilience against drought and, therefore, wildfires. A 2018 study co-authored by Alexandra Konings, an assistant professor of Earth system science at Stanford Earth, looked specifically at forests’ hydraulic diversity – differences in how trees move and use water – and supported the drought-reduction benefits of diverse forests. In terms of fire prevention, planting a mix of tree species after a fire could result in a more drought-resistant forest, said the researchers.

A study published in Nature in 2017 by Jackson and others found that savannas and broadleaf forests that experience repeated fires can end up with reduced carbon and nitrogen in their soil for decades. This can lead to poor plant regrowth and, potentially, to reduced carbon storage. However, in a story about this study, the researchers explained that this wasn’t an argument in favor of fire suppression but, rather, a push for longer-term perspectives on controlled burning and other fuel reduction methods.

Researchers at the Bill Lane Center for the American West wrote about the high cost of wildfire response. They described how some agencies, in order to pay these costs, take money from funds set aside for controlled burn programs and other methods for reducing forest vegetation. California’s budget system allows the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to draw money from a rainy day fund.

How might the costs of wildfire lawsuits affect Californians?

In a Stanford News Q&A, energy policy expert Michael Wara, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, discussed Pacific Gas & Electric’s $250 million-plus commitment to electric vehicle infrastructure and rebate incentives to electrify the transportation sector. Wara expressed concern that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved this spending, in addition to millions more from two other large utilities, without first knowing the liability from the wildfires.

“In a worst-case scenario, ratepayers could be on the hook for billions of dollars, potentially amounting to $10/month or more on their electricity bills,” said Wara. “Just like you don’t buy a new car when you might lose your job, I would prefer that the CPUC wait a bit on major new investments until we understand where the utilities stand.”

He added that electrification of medium- and heavy-duty transport is an important piece of the state’s cap-and-trade program goals, which include reducing our greenhouse gas levels to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

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Hazards Wildfire
Country and region United States of America
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