As summer temperatures hit record highs nearly everywhere throughout the country, a longer, more severe wildfire season is expected. Wildfire smoke can cause both immediate and long-term health impacts. And the emotional toll of such disasters can be overwhelming.
Wildfires are unplanned fires that spread quickly and burn in natural areas like forests and grasslands. They can also affect surrounding communities.
Being prepared and knowing what to do if there’s a wildfire emergency near you can keep you physically safe and reduce the toll on your mental health.
Wildfire smoke can affect people who live up to hundreds of miles away from the fire, according to Thomas Dailey, MD, a pulmonologist and critical care medicine physician for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California.
Once a person breathes in pollution from wildfire smoke, called “ultrafine particulate matter,” it can pass into the bloodstream. Children and people with preexisting lung conditions, including asthma, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are at higher risk for developing health-related issues.
“This is very toxic material,” Dr. Dailey said. “It has been associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and inflammation, and it can impact lung function.”
Dr. Dailey added that on days when your local health department says it’s unsafe for people with preexisting conditions to be outside, it means it’s unsafe for everyone.
A recent analysis by the Stanford Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab shows that 2023 already qualifies as the worst smoke exposure season in the U.S. since 2006 because of the Canadian wildfires. And peak wildfire season hasn’t started yet in many places.
While the long-term effects of wildfire smoke aren’t fully known, short-term effects can include:
Mental health can also be affected by wildfires. For people who have lost their homes, been evacuated due to fire, or had brush burning in their backyards, the emotional effects can be like the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even if you don’t live in an area affected by wildfires, it’s possible to feel anxious or upset when hearing the devastating stories of people experiencing loss from fires.
One of the best ways to reduce the stress of fire season is to be prepared. Pack your go bag — a portable kit of supplies you can quickly take with you. In case of evacuation, know your local resources, evacuation routes, and important contacts.
Recognizing your emotions and talking openly about your concerns can also help. Consider reaching out to your neighbors and making a plan to help one another in an emergency.