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Study: California wildfire smoke linked to over 52,000 deaths in a decade

Environment & Climate
 The Delta Fire burns in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, California, on Sept 6, 2018. [AP Photo]

Pollution from wildfires led to the deaths of more than 52,000 people in a decade in California, according to a new study Friday that analyzed the health effects of long-term exposure to smoke.

Looking at data from 2008 to 2018, researchers at the University of California- Los Angeles analyzed PM2.5 airborne pollutants — named for their size of less than 2.5 micrometers — that were released from wildfires and found a lethal impact on local populations that far outnumbers the deaths directly attributable to physical damage from wildfires.

Rachel Connolly, the lead author of the study, said in a news release that the numbers are higher than previous estimates because prior research primarily focused on the short-term health impacts of pollution.

“A growing body of research suggests that particulate matter from wildfire smoke is more harmful to human health than particulate matter from other pollution sources,” she added. “Society needs to invest in forest management and climate mitigation, both of which could yield significant health benefits.”

The study said the severity and risk of wildfires in California have increased in the last several decades. The researchers estimated the economic impact of the wildfire pollutants, including treating those  who have been sickened, at $432 billion to $456 billion.

A previous study analyzing the impacts of the 2018 wildfires in California estimated 3,652 premature deaths from exposure to wildfire smoke, but the UCLA study estimated over 12,000 deaths during the same time frame. The UCLA researchers said the difference can be attributed to using more specific health data.

A record-breaking heat wave that moved through California this week has raised concerns that its wildfire season could be worse this year. The last two wildfire seasons have been mild, largely because of wet winters.

The fires in the state this year have mostly been grass fires, which do not reach the scorching temperatures of wildfires and are easier to extinguish.

Though wildfires are a natural and necessary component of the wilderness, climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels has made them larger and hotter.

“The importance of wildfire management will only grow in the coming decades as aridification intensifies with climate change and more regions are susceptible to fires,” the researchers said in the paper.

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