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The changing risk and burden of wildfire in the United States
Sunday, 2021/01/24 | 09:04:15

Marshall Burke et  al. (PNAS January 12, 2021 118 (2) e2011048118)

 

Recent dramatic and deadly increases in global wildfire activity have increased attention on the causes of wildfires, their consequences, and how risk from wildfire might be mitigated. Here we bring together data on the changing risk and societal burden of wildfire in the United States. We estimate that nearly 50 million homes are currently in the wildland–urban interface in the United States, a number increasing by 1 million houses every 3 y. To illustrate how changes in wildfire activity might affect air pollution and related health outcomes, and how these linkages might guide future science and policy, we develop a statistical model that relates satellite-based fire and smoke data to information from pollution monitoring stations. Using the model, we estimate that wildfires have accounted for up to 25% of PM2.5 (particulate matter with diameter <2.5 μm) in recent years across the United States, and up to half in some Western regions, with spatial patterns in ambient smoke exposure that do not follow traditional socioeconomic pollution exposure gradients. We combine the model with stylized scenarios to show that fuel management interventions could have large health benefits and that future health impacts from climate-change–induced wildfire smoke could approach projected overall increases in temperature-related mortality from climate change—but that both estimates remain uncertain. We use model results to highlight important areas for future research and to draw lessons for policy.

 

See: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/2/e2011048118

 

Figure: The quantity, source, and incidence of wildfire smoke. (A and B) Average predicted micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5PM2.5 attributable to wildfire smoke in 2006 to 2008 and 2016 to 2018, as calculated from a statistical model fitting satellite-derived smoke plume data. (C) Share of smoke originating outside the United States, June to September 2007 to 2014 (calculated from ref. 13), with a substantial amount of smoke in the Northeast and Midwest originating from Canadian fires and about 60% of smoke in the Northeast originating outside the country; nationally, ∼11% of smoke is estimated to originate outside the country. (D) The share of smoke originating in the western United States, June to September 2007 to 2014. Smoke originating in the western United States accounts for 54% of the smoke experienced in the rest of the United States. (E and F) Racial exposure gradients are opposite for particulate matter from smoke compared to total particulate matter: Across the coterminous United States, counties with a higher population proportion of non-Hispanic whites have lower average particulate matter exposure but higher average ambient exposure to particulate matter from smoke (P <0.01 for both relationships).

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