Wildfires have historically been a natural part of our environmental landscape, but over the past few years, the number of wildfires has increased and they’re burning more land. Every year, millions of acres of land are consumed by fire in the United States. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in 2020 there were over 57,000 wildfires in the U.S. that resulted in over 10.3 million acres burned, compared with 4.7 million acres in 2019.
But what exactly is causing wildfires to become longer and more destructive over time?
Climate change is a key driver. As global temperatures rise, winter snow melts sooner, leading to drier soil and increasing the likelihood of droughts. Severe heat and drought are the fuel for wildfires, especially in natural areas like forests, but they can devastate rural and urban communities as well.
In addition to the devastation that wildfires can bring to a community, the health impacts of wildfires have long-reaching consequences.
The smoke exposure from wildfires can harm anyone nearby and can travel thousands of miles downwind, across states, countries, and even oceans. Smoke inhalation can cause heart attacks, asthma episodes and can even lead to premature death. It can be especially harmful to people living with lung diseases like COPD and asthma. Even healthy adults can be at risk for coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Wildfires are a big part of the reason that climate change is a public health emergency.
So, what can people do to protect themselves?
One way is by taking the pledge to Stand Up For Clean Air and by getting your community talking about climate change with the help of the American Lung Association’s Activist Toolkit. For those who have been personally impacted by the harmful health effects of wildfire smoke, there are additional steps you can take to protect the air you breathe.
Taking proactive precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones during a wildfire is imperative, especially if you live in an environment where the risk is high. People living close to fire-stricken areas should remain indoors, unless prompted by local officials to evacuate, and try to avoid exposure to smoke, ashes, and other pollution in the area.
Unfortunately, wildfire smoke not only affects the air outside, it can easily travel into our indoor living spaces as well, increasing the risk for smoke inhalation and difficulty breathing.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, creating a clean room can help protect your indoor air quality. Designating a clean room in an area of your home can help you filter in cleaner air when unhealthy smoke may be seeping into your home.
How to Set Up a Clean Room at Home
For more information on protecting your lungs and your home during a wildfire, visit Lung.org/wildfires and contact your state and local health department.