Wildfires

The devastation caused by wildfires is self-evident – but their impact is greater and more wide-ranging than you might think…

a family wearing face masks in the smoke-filled streets of ventura, california
Health hazard: a family wearing face masks in the smoke-filled streets of Ventura, California. Photograph: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

— This year, the number of wildfires in Europe has increased. In California, the Mendocino complex wildfire is the largest in its history. Research continues to reveal the extent of health problems arising because of large wildfires, yet there are some surprising findings about their impact on economics and the environment.

Health

A Yale University review showed that after wildfires, the density of small particulate matter in the air was 1.2 to 10 times higher than in non-fire areas; 90% of studies reviewed showed an increase in respiratory mortality. A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed an increase of 42% in casualty department attendances for heart attacks on high smoke days due to wildfires.

a house burns in lucerne, california
A house burns in Lucerne, California: 5% of the housing stock in nearby Santa Rosa was lost to wildfires last year. Photograph: Mark McKenna/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

 

Housing

Last year, Santa Rosa in California lost 5% of its housing stock due to wildfires. Perversely, property prices rose 5.5% after an initial slump as people vied for available properties. Rental prices have increased by 30%. Meanwhile, thousands who live “paycheck to paycheck” continue to live in homeless camps.

fighting fire in lake county, california
Fighting fire in Lake County, California: wildfires seem to have a beneficial effect on the economy. Photograph: Mark McKenna/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

 

Economy

A 2013 study by the University of Oregon found that disruption of the labour market during the fire was offset by increased employment and higher wages related to fire-fighting activities. Later, there was more volatility in the labour market but no obvious slump.

dung beetles and saplings suffer when wildfires are frequent
Dung beetles and saplings suffer when wildfires are frequent; ants and birds fare better. Photograph: Arco Images GmbH/Alamy

 

Biodiversity

Research over a 10-year period in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest has shown that single wildfires don’t have a negative effect on biodiversity. Frequent fires (three or more in 10 years) reduce biodiversity in dung beetles and saplings, but not in ants, trees or certain species of birds.

land that is subject to wildfires is also many times more susceptible to erosion
Fragile earth: land that is subject to wildfires is also many times more susceptible to erosion. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

 

Erosion

Wildfires have a lasting effect on the landscape; research in New Mexico has shown that soil and rock eroded 1,000 to 10,000 times faster in forested mountains where there had been a wildfire compared to areas that had been unburnt.


by Hilary Guite | The Guardian