Lung Association Report: Prescribed Burns Can Mitigate Health Harm from Worsening Wildfires

New report weighs benefits and risks of prescribed fire to mitigate health harms of catastrophic wildfires

Fueled by climate change, wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense – increasingly exposing more Americans to the potentially deadly effects of breathing wildfire smoke. Already in 2022, several states have experienced their largest wildfires in history, and more are expected. Today, the American Lung Association released a new report, which finds that prescribed burning can help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and the impact on air quality and lung health.

The American Lung Association’s report, “Can Prescribed Fires Mitigate Health Harm? A Review of Air Quality and Public Health Implications of Wildfire and Prescribed Fire,” prepared by PSE Healthy Energy, looks at the current research on the potential of prescribed burning to mitigate the increasing health and air quality risks from catastrophic wildfires. The report shows that wildfire activity is predicted to increase in the decades ahead and that historical fire suppression policies are insufficient for longer-term fire management, deferring rather than preventing catastrophic wildfires. It finds that responsible expanded prescribed burn activity can be used to mitigate the negative air quality, health, and safety impacts of large-scale wildfires.

“June historically marked the start of ‘wildfire season.’ Unfortunately, the U.S. is now seeing catastrophic wildfires throughout the year. Policymakers need to do more to lessen the devastating impacts to human life, air quality and health,” said Harold Wimmer, National President and CEO for the American Lung Association. “The American Lung Association commissioned this report to learn more about the impacts of prescribed burning, and how this approach may have the potential to help protect the lung health of Americans from the growing health threats posed by wildfires. Since such measures also produce smoke that can be harmful to health, it was important for us to review and understand the latest research.”

While more research is needed to evaluate comparative risks of prescribed fire smoke and wildfire, using prescribed burns under the right conditions can mitigate the negative impacts of large-scale fires. The report also found that although increasing prescribed burning activities may contribute to local air quality impacts, prescribed fire can be conducted in ways that minimize harmful smoke exposure. Prescribed burns are implemented under planned, predictable circumstances when and where additional measures should be taken to mitigate potential harmful smoke exposures.

According to the Lung Association’s 2022 “State of the Air” report, wildfires in the western U.S. were responsible for a sharp rise in particle pollution spikes in several states. This year’s report finds an increase of close to 8.9 million more people living in areas with failing grades for unhealthy levels of short-term particle pollution compared to last year’s report. In total, 63.2 million people live in counties that that earned an “F” grade for unhealthy spikes in particle pollution. Rising temperatures, increased drought and other impacts associated with climate change contribute to more frequent and intense wildfire smoke.

Wildfire smoke can be extremely harmful to lungs, especially for children, older adults and people with asthma, COPD, chronic heart disease and diabetes. Pregnant people exposed to wildfire smoke are more likely to experience adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth. There is also strong evidence linking smoke exposure to increased risk of premature death.

As catastrophic wildfires put the health of more and more Americans at risk, immediate steps are needed to reduce health harm. Numerous strategies can be implemented to reduce public health impacts associated with wildfire smoke exposure, many of which also mitigate smoke exposure from prescribed burn activities. These strategies include air quality surveillance coupled with public outreach and public notification systems; indoor air filtration and clean air spaces; and additional emergency planning and response, including protections for vulnerable populations.

View the full report here. For resources on how individuals can protect themselves from wildfire smoke, visit Lung.org/Wildfire.

For more information, contact:

Jill Dale
312-940-7001
Jill.Dale@Lung.org

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