Western wildfires: U-M experts available to comment
Dozens of major wildfires are burning in Oregon, California and other western states. An estimated 500,000 Oregon residents were told to evacuate. In California, 19 people had been killed and at least 4,000 buildings had burned as of Friday morning, according to the Associated Press.
University of Michigan experts are available to discuss the wildfires.
Paige Fischer, an associate professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability, is a social scientist who studies wildfires. She conducts research on how people experience and perceive wildfire risk, as well as what motivates and constrains them in taking action to reduce risk. She also examines how people adapt to long-term changes in climate conditions that drive wildfire risk.
“The many wildfires burning in areas not typically considered fire prone, such as northwest Oregon, are a true climate change wake-up call, signaling the need to adapt to risks with which we have little past experience,” said Fisher, who believes that in some parts of the West, those adaptation measures could include retreat from the riskiest fire-prone areas.
“I think planned retreat should be part of a suite of options,” she said.
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Trish Koman is a research investigator in environmental health sciences at the School of Public Health. In a recent study led by Koman, researchers mapped the exposure to wildland fire smoke in California. She says wildfires and the health effects of climate change and climate-related disasters disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color.
“Wildland fire smoke exposures contribute to respiratory problems, such as worsening of COPD and asthma. Even people who live far away can be affected by air pollution from fires,” she said. “These devastating fires in the western U.S. make climate change feel more immediate and relevant to many people. Reducing carbon emissions is essential to averting the worst health effects of climate change, and it’s in our power to make these changes in emissions.”
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Sue Anne Bell is an assistant professor at the School of Nursing, where she studies the long-term health effects of disasters on communities, particularly among older adults. She also deploys to major disasters as part of a federal disaster response team to support the public health response, including to the Paradise, California, fires in 2018.
“Western states have already experienced unprecedented effects from previous fires that will already take years to recover from,” she said. “The most recent fires have set long-term recovery efforts back even further. Unfortunately, it is the most vulnerable—older adults, children and persons with disabilities—who will suffer the most.”
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Richard Rood, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the College of Engineering, can discuss the intersections of wildfires and climate, and climate and society.
“The Lower 48 of the U.S. is in the midst of a historic wildfire season, and it is still early in the season. The fires are mostly in the West, where there is persistent drought,” he said. “When there is drought, fire becomes more likely. And with the warming climate, when drought conditions exist, they will be more severe. I think it’s plausible to anticipate more likelihood for both grassland and forest fires in other parts of the U.S. going forward.
“Though the extreme fires are related to many factors, including forest management, aging electrical infrastructure and building in wooded landscapes, climate change amplifies the fires once they are started. The persistent higher temperatures amplify drought conditions, compared to historical conditions. The current, extreme high temperatures associated with the heat dome that has been present assure explosive conditions for ignition and spread.”
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Sara Dubowsky Adar is an associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health. Her research focuses on the human health effects of air pollution, with a growing interest in identifying intervention strategies to reduce exposures and improve health. Adar has served as an expert panelist for the Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization, including participation in the development of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter and sulfur oxides.