How to fight and prevent wildfires and deal with their effects? It’s complicated, UCSD panel says
Weather, technology, economics, health and more are factors in finding solutions, according to speakers at an online roundtable.
While the formula for fire is relatively simple — fuel, combustion and oxygen — the formula for tackling wildfires and their repercussions isn’t so easy.
UC San Diego in La Jolla presented an online roundtable discussion Aug. 4 on the complexity and devastating impacts of wildfires and the steps being taken toward planning, prevention and tending to those affected.
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2023 wildfire outlook
Phillip SeLegue, deputy chief of intelligence for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, opened the event with climate factors that influence wildfires and the outlook for this year’s “four months of significant fire potential” from August through November.
“Right now, in August, there are some below normal and normal [projections], but as we progress into the year, we see areas that are above normal,” SeLegue said. “This doesn’t mean we are not going to have fires, large fires or the potential for large or catastrophic fires. This is looking at some of those climatological and vegetative states and health.”
With the wet weather earlier this year and El Niño storms expected later in the year, “the increase of water we have and the increased snowpack [should] definitely help our vegetative health, but with that increased vegetation … we have introduced this component of fuel [for fires].”
SeLegue said 2017 was “a very wet year” with a lot of new foliage. “Then we experienced catastrophic, high-reaching wind events” that led to an intense fire season, and similar conditions are in effect this year, he said. Thus, the department is working to remove dead and dying vegetation in problematic areas to try to reduce the risk.
Report says the city should more closely monitor about 3,000 acres in high-risk areas and revamp inconsistent policies for removing flammable brush.
Cal Fire also is collaborating with the UCSD-based AlertCalifornia camera system — a public safety program working to understand natural disasters and determine short- and long-term impacts on people and the environment — to identify fires more quickly and efficiently.
Neal Driscoll, a geology and geophysics professor at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said nearly 1,000 cameras are part of the AlertCalifornia system, enabling firefighters around the state to confirm a report of ignition and fight a fire when it is small and manageable.
“Five years ago, dispatch would have had to send a battalion or an aircraft to have eyes on the fire,” Driscoll said. “Now we can confirm ignition quickly … and provide environmental context of the fire, such as the color of the smoke, whether wind [is a factor]. This information allows dispatch to scale the response accordingly.”
UCSD also is using models to try to find both proactive and reactive solutions, said Ilkay Altintas, chief data science officer at UCSD’s WiFire lab.
Programs currently being used “help monitor and predict the direction and speed of fire spread and communities at risk,” she said. “It has revolutionized initial attack response … for the most dangerous fires in California.”
Policy, economic and social factors
Other panelists discussed the social and economic effects of wildfires.
UCSD environmental economist Judson Boomhower is part of a team that looked at damage assessments over the past 20 years from more than 100 fires in multiple states to build “what we think is the most comprehensive data set of structural-level damage outcomes when homes have been exposed to wildfires.”
The study also looked into what makes some homes more resistant to fires than others.
“One of the very clear [factors] at the community or policy level is [the effectiveness of] the building codes that California has implemented for newly built homes and how they improve the survivability of the homes,” Boomhower said.
In addition, the team is looking at the financial impacts of fires, he said. Among the questions: Do home losses tend to be concentrated in particular income or demographic groups? What are the possibilities for recovery for families who suffer significant loss in a fire? How are insurance costs affected by the fires?
Jyoti Mishra, associate director of the UC Climate and Mental Health Initiative, said she has been studying the effects of the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County, considered California’s deadliest wildfire to date.
As part of a study of 725 people affected by the fire, she looked at mental health impacts. The study determined that issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression were more prevalent in those directly affected by the fire, even years afterward.
“We’re continuing to build on this evidence and create resilience solutions,” Mishra said.
Though it was known that particulates from air pollution are harmful to human health, smoke from wildfires is seen as a new source of air pollution creating additional problems.
Scripps Oceanography climate change epidemiologist Tarik Benmarhnia said researchers are looking to “better understand the health implications of this smoke.” Exposure can cause premature aging of cells and complications for the immune system, he said.
The fine particles in smoke are “up to 10 times more dangerous than other sources of emission,” he said, creating a “much more toxic [environment] from most of the health impacts we study.”
Benmarhnia argued that the findings “justify the need to conduct more studies in countries around the world where there are many fires and where people are exposed.” ◆