California Prepares for Increased Wildfire Risk to Air Quality From Climate Change

California Prepares for Increased Wildfire Risk to Air Quality From Climate Change

Equity & Justice

Children, the elderly, people who are pregnant, and people with preexisting respiratory conditions are all especially vulnerable to health impacts from wildfires. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that smoke exposure can trigger eye and respiratory tract irritation; reduce lung function; and cause bronchitis, asthma, heart failure, and even premature death.  

Where one lives, how much money one makes, and other demographic characteristics are also significant factors in determining wildfire risks. Research has shown census tracts that are at high risk for wildfire frequency and damage also have higher proportions of low-income residents. One study found that census tracts that are majority Black, Hispanic, or Native American experience 50 percent more vulnerability to wildfires compared to other census tracts. 

Project Summary

Wildfires, a longstanding and frequent threat to California, are expected to increase in intensity and frequency due to climate change. While wildfires are obviously a significant threat to property and public safety, they can also significantly affect air quality by increasing the amount of particulates in the air. Because of this, California included wildfire threat within its 2009 Climate Adaptation Strategy and seeks to reduce and adapt to the increasing future threat to air quality from wildfires.

Consistent with adaptation planning practices, California conducted a vulnerability assessment to better understand the projected magnitude of impact climate change could have on wildfire activity including concerns such as the effectiveness of California's climate sinks (i.e., carbon stored in vegetation) and how projected climate changes are expected to impact them. While there are many factors that may influence past trends, climate change is expected to significantly impact California's forests and contribute to an increase of wildfires in the projected future. California's 2010 Rangeland Assessment’s chapter on climate change notes that the fire season has been starting sooner and ending later, and the severity of wildfire acreage burned has been increasing in recent years. The Rangeland Assessment also includes reference to literature (i.e., studies) that suggests the increased number of wildfires will lead to a corresponding increase in the number of ‘bad’ air days from particulate matter. California is anticipating how climate change will affect wildfires and associated public health concerns and adapting by protecting forests, increasing public awareness of proper land management strategies and promoting efforts to better maintain air quality.

How did they do it?
ActionApplicable Resources

Assessed public health risk from increased wildfires due to changing climate conditions

  • Developed a vulnerability report that included in depth analysis of climate projections and impacts to the forestry sector from wildfires.
  • Conducted a Forest and Rangeland Resources Assessment that used Global Climate Models to simulate the projected temperature changes under two separate emissions scenarios in order to create a climate threat index for California Forests and a Fire Hazard Severity Zone map of the state.
  • Included climate risk to wildfires and associated impacts to air quality within the Safeguarding California: Implementation Action Plan for The Public Health Sector
  • The 2014 Quadrennial Fire Review forecasts conditions that may present the greatest challenges for wildlife management and then develops long-term, strategic actions to address them.
  • The EPA's Wildfire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials helps health care professionals and asthma educators understand the health effects associated with wildlife smoke and steps to advise patients to take to reduce smoke exposure.

Identified adaptation strategies and created local resources

  • Identified resiliency strategies in the California Statewide Adaptation Strategy including fire suppression efforts, and near and long term adaptation strategies to develop institutional capacity to monitor and mitigate the increased threat and risk of wildfires. These efforts are attempting to reduce wildfires and the associated impacts to air quality and human health.
  • Developed an Adaptation Planning Guide to help local communities undergo a vulnerability assessment and create adaptation plans.
  • Promoted public awareness for the need to reduce the frequency and intensity of wildfires and provided grant funds to local organizations to fund projects related to fuel (vegetation) hazard reduction, fire prevention education and training, and fire prevention planning.
  • Provided guidelines on "Cal-Adapt" on vulnerabilities and how communities can identify adaptation strategies and tools to deal with increased wildfire risk.
  • Created a public website with an interactive projection of wildfire risk for both regions and individuals to gauge future wildfire risk around the state under two different emissions scenarios.
  • The Forest Service’s LANDFIRE provides comprehensive, landscape-scale maps of vegetation, fire, and fuel characteristics for the U.S. and some island areas.

Similar Case Studies

  • Wildfires pose extreme threats to public safety; however, this case study focuses on USEPA's role in protecting air quality. For another example on how a community is adapting to air quality concerns see the Salt Lake City case.