As wildfires become more frequent, the health risk from wildfire smoke also is increasing, along with the associated economic costs.
The economic toll of fires is growing as climate change fuels larger and more intense wildfires in the western United States and Canada. Eight of the top ten most destructive wildfires in US history, in terms of insured property losses, have occurred since 2017. The past several weeks have brought news that State Farm will join Allstate in ceasing to write new home and commercial insurance policies in California, partially in response to wildfire risk in the state.
But scientists have produced mounting evidence over the past several years that wildfires’ direct impact on homes and businesses is only part of the story. In a study of fires in California in 2018, the costs of smoke impacts, valued based on measures used by the US Environmental Protection Agency for benefit-cost analyses, outweighed direct property damages. And that was true even though 2018 included the Camp Fire, the most destructive fire in US history.
Wildfire risks most often call to mind burning communities and destroyed homes. However, while these damages can be substantial, damages due to smoke may be at least as large. And smoke is only likely to grow in concern as climate change continues to drive wildfire activity, and as smoke impinges on air quality far away from the forests and wildlands typically affected by fire.
After decades of improving air quality, in part due to the success of the Clean Air Act, wildfire smoke is now driving increases in the pollutant PM2.5 nationwide. Wildfire smoke contains large amounts of fine particulate matter, which is known to be a serious threat to human health. Fine particulate matter—known as PM2.5 because it’s made up of particles smaller than 2.5 microns in width—can get in the lungs and blood stream and cause a variety of problems for respiratory and heart health, and even for cognitive function.
Wildfire-driven increases have been sharpest in western states, where wildfires contribute as much as one-half of overall PM2.5 exposure. However, the eastern United States has not been immune from the effects of fires. Driven by fires in Quebec, this month’s smoke event—which led New York City to temporarily become the most polluted city in the world—was the worst the eastern United States has ever experienced, and it is not the only instance of wildfire smoke descending on eastern US cities in recent years.
The ability of smoke to reach across wide areas means that more and more people will feel the effects of a changing climate in their daily lives and in the air they breathe.
While the links between cause and effect are not as obvious for smoke as they are for fires, studies have shown that wildfire smoke has significant consequences for health and the economy. Smoke is linked to reduced infant health, and increased emergency room visits and mortality. Smoke can reduce labor supply and labor earnings. It can also cause more people to stay at home, potentially reducing consumer spending.
Exposure to moderate, or even high, levels of wildfire smoke doesn’t necessarily mean any given person will experience any noticeable harm. However, small increases in the probability of severe outcomes, aggregated across the very large number of people potentially affected by wildfire smoke, add up. One study found that reductions in labor supply and earnings, primarily among older workers, costs the US economy approximately $92 billion each year—far more than the US federal government spends reducing wildfire hazard each year.
Unless you live in the West, the threat wildfires pose to homes and businesses may feel somewhat abstract. But the ability of smoke to reach across wide areas means that more and more people will feel the effects of a changing climate in their daily lives and in the air they breathe.
As the health and economic consequences of smoke have come into focus, it has become clear that wildfires are a problem that’s not restricted to the western United States. Decisionmakers will need to rise to the challenge in the coming decades to keep Americans safe and healthy, both near and far away from lands where fires burn.
This blog post has been adapted with light edits from an op-ed that was originally published in Barron’s.