Public Health & Wildfire Smoke

Athena Intelligence
4 min readJan 30, 2024

Factors for municipalities to consider in their mitigation vs. wildfire response budgeting

In recent years, the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires have drawn attention to the public health risks posed by wildfire smoke. As communities grapple with the aftermath of these natural disasters, the debate over the costs of proactive strategies to curb wildfire risk vs reactive measures to fight fires has increased. For municipal governments the public health and economic implications of the debate are significant.

Photo by Malachi Brooks/Unsplash

Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of gases and particulate matter that can have severe consequences for public health. The microscopic particles, known as PM2.5, can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing respiratory and cardiovascular issues. Prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke has been linked to exacerbation of pre-existing conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, increased hospital admissions, and even premature deaths. Vulnerable populations, including the elderly, children, and individuals with pre-existing health conditions, are at risk.

PM2.5 triggers cardiovascular events through pathophysiologic mechanisms and biologic pathways. (OK, I pulled that sentence from the October 2022 cover story from Cardiology Magazine Thank you Google.) I understood the chart above! Air Pollution was the number 4 mortality risk factor in 2019, when looking at heart attack patients. One more dense sentence from the article. Long-term exposure to ambient PM2.5 is linked to subclinical cardiovascular diseases such as left ventricular hypertrophy, increased carotid intima media thickness, and calcification of both the coronary artery and abdominal aorta.

Stacey E. Alexeeff PhD, a research scientist and biostatistician at the Kaiser Permanente Norther California Division of Research, has been studying the impact of wildfire air pollution on cardiovascular events and mortality. She said, “We feel pretty comfortable discussing at what level of particulate matter things get unhealthy. Particles from a wildfire are different from the air pollution that we breathe every day, which mostly comes from vehicles and industrial sources. When structures burned in Paradise in Northern California in 2018, there were higher levels of lead and zinc [in the air pollution].”

When wildfires occur, communities are often forced to adopt reactive measures to protect public health. Emergency responses, evacuation efforts, and healthcare interventions come with substantial economic costs. The immediate deployment of firefighting resources, evacuation shelters, and medical services strain public budgets.

The long-term costs of treating health issues arising from exposure to wildfire smoke, may be borne by health insurance and states, but the health impact to residents affects productivity for local business, creating an additional burden on both public and private sectors. The bottom line: City managers need to be mindful of the longer-term impact of wildfires on public health. Wildfires are a laggard drag on the tax base, which may not be top of mind in budgeting discussion about wildfire mitigation vs firefighting.

Proactive strategies that mitigate wildfires also reduce the associated health risks. Therefore, it is appropriate for supervisors and city managers to think about expenses for preventive measures, such as forest management, controlled burns, and the creation of defensible spaces which aim to reduce wildfires as investments in the community. These contribute to lessening public health risks and improving overall resilience. Despite the upfront costs of proactive measures, they have the potential to yield substantial economic benefits.

A comprehensive cost-benefit analysis can reveal that proactive approaches to addressing wildfire smoke are economically favorable in the long run. The analysis should include:

  • The expense of the reactive emergency responses & medical interventions.
  • The value of improved public health outcomes on local businesses.
  • The preservation of ecosystems (especially the impact on watersheds and water purification).
  • The rebuilding costs of infrastructure (schools, municipal owned buildings, lights, roads, etc).
  • The obvious impact to homes and businesses and the cost of firefighting,
  • versus the cost of mitigation efforts.

Thank you for reading this essay. Of course, we are biased — Athena’s offering for municipalities and rural utilities is a GIS report which is a cost-effective way to evaluating where your mitigation efforts will be most effective. We understand that towns, coops and municipal owned utilities all operate with a budget in the public eye and are frugal in their approach to expenses — and managers seek “good value” in goods and services.

Nevertheless, as the frequency and severity of wildfires rises, the intersection of public health, wildfire smoke, and the evaluation of the relative expense of reactive versus proactive measures becomes increasingly critical. A proactive stance that prioritizes mitigation protects public health and is economically advantageous over time. Managers must be mindful of the often-unstated expectation that they will safeguard the well-being of their populations, as well as the clear and explicit goal of reducing the economic toll of natural disasters.

California’s Legislature is beginning to address this issue. The Wildfire Smoke and Health Outcomes Data Act, is still a proposal (Senate Bill 945) as this is written. This bill allows state agencies to track and monitor air pollution, population exposure, and cases of adverse health outcomes due to wildfire smoke within California’s population. This will help us understand the negative impacts of wildfire smoke on public health.

Athena Intelligence is a prefire data vendor with a geospatial, conditional, profiling tool that pulls together vast amounts of disaggregated wildfire and environmental data to generate spatial intelligence, resulting in a digital fingerprint of wildfire risk.

For power companies, this helps them assess, a year in advance, where a consequential fire is most likely. For insurance or financial services companies, this assists in underwriting, portfolio risk optimization and loss cost probabilities for reserving.



Athena Intelligence

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