Wildfires and Their Impact on Lung Health

21 June 2024

Wildfires are increasing in frequency, and wildfire season now spans over seven months in the Western U.S. The USDA Department of Agriculture has noticed a significant increase since the 1980s in both the frequency and duration of wildfires. The scale of the wildfire crisis in the US is staggering. In recent years, wildfires have ravaged vast areas of land, destroying homes, displacing wildlife, and endangering lives. The increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires globally has also raised concerns about the long-term effects of exposure to wildfire smoke on respiratory well-being. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the dangers wildfires pose to lung health and explore ways to mitigate these risks.

The Impact of Wildfire Smoke on Lung Health

Sometimes natural factors like lightning strikes can ignite fires, but human activities often play a significant role in wildfires. Unattended campfires discarded cigarettes, and equipment malfunctions can all spark wildfires, highlighting the need for responsible behavior and fire prevention measures. Climate change exacerbates the wildfire crisis by creating conditions conducive to fire spread like rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, and erratic weather patterns.  These create tinderbox environments where fires can quickly escalate out of control.

Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of gases and fine particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing respiratory issues. The fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter), can bypass the body’s natural defenses and enter the bloodstream, triggering inflammation and oxidative stress.

Exposure to wildfire smoke has been linked to acute respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and throat irritation. For individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or lung cancer, wildfire smoke can exacerbate symptoms and lead to serious health complications.

Few studies have been done on the impact of wildfires on civilians (most research focuses on emergency responders). Naturally, firefighters and first responders have the greatest exposure to wildfires and their hazards, however, how does regular ongoing exposure to smoke over the years impact normal individuals? A 2022 study by Canadian researchers on more than 2 million adults examined the long-term effects of exposure to wildfire and cancer risk, and researchers did note a small increase in the risk of lung cancer and brain tumors in individuals who live near wildfires. New research continues to emerge, and UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is currently funding two pilot studies on wildfire smoke and how it could permanently change the air and water supply in California.

Vulnerable Populations at Risk

Certain populations are more vulnerable to the effects of wildfire smoke. Children, elderly individuals, pregnant women, and people with underlying health conditions face a higher risk of respiratory problems when exposed to poor air quality resulting from wildfires. Outdoor workers such as firefighters, agricultural workers, and construction crews are also at increased risk due to prolonged exposure during wildfire events.

Long-Term Health Implications

The long-term health implications of repeated exposure to wildfire smoke are a growing concern. Studies have indicated associations between wildfire smoke exposure and increased hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. Chronic exposure may also contribute to the development of respiratory diseases over time, highlighting the need for proactive measures to protect public health.

Mitigating Risks and Promoting Lung Health

There are steps individuals and communities can take to protect lung health during wildfire events:

Stay Informed: Monitor air quality reports and wildfire updates to make informed decisions about outdoor activities, especially for sensitive populations.

Use Air Filtration: Invest in HEPA air purifiers for indoor spaces to reduce exposure to fine particulate matter. Keep windows and doors closed during periods of poor air quality.

Limit Outdoor Exposure: Minimize outdoor activities, especially strenuous exercise, when air quality is compromised. Use N95 or P100 respirators if you must be outdoors in smoky conditions.

Create Safe Indoor Spaces: Designate clean air spaces in homes, schools, and workplaces where vulnerable individuals can seek refuge during wildfire events.

Advocate for Policy Changes: Support policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the impacts of climate change, which contribute to the wildfire crisis.


Wildfires are a significant environmental and public health challenge, with far-reaching consequences for lung health. By understanding the risks associated with wildfire smoke and taking proactive measures to mitigate exposure, we can safeguard our respiratory well-being and work towards a healthier, more resilient future for all. Stay informed, stay prepared, and prioritize lung health in the face of this silent threat.

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