Postcard from California: The human cost of living with wildfires

By Bill Walker

The toll of wildfire in California is staggering: In the last 10 years, wildfires have burned more than 13.6 million acres of the state and taken the lives of 144 people, including 15 firefighters. The state estimates property damages from the more than 93,000 wildfires in those years at nearly $250 billion.

But sobering as those statistics are, they don’t measure the full cost to Californians from living with increasingly deadly and destructive wildfires.

A new study, led by researchers from the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), calculated that from 52,480 to 57,710 Californians died prematurely from exposure to wildfire smoke between 2008 and 2018. The study, published June 7 in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, estimated the economic impact of those lost lives at between $432 billion and $456 billion.

“Climate change, forest mismanagement and an expansion of the wildland-urban interface have led to worsening wildfires across California, and with those fires come smoke pollution and increasing health impacts from air pollution exposure,” Rachael Connolly, a staff researcher at the UCLA Fielding School and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This is the first research exploring how that chronic, long-term smoke exposure affects people across the state.”

The wildland-urban interface refers to zones where people live near forests or other undeveloped areas at greater risk of wildfire. The high cost and scarcity of housing in coastal cities is pushing more and more Californians to move inland, swelling the population in areas more likely to burn.