Forest fires a huge cost to health

Forest fires don't just have an impact on the environment, but on human health, according to a new study from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada,which attempted to put a pricetag on the actual economic losses caused by one such fire.

The study, published recently in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, assessed the economic impact of air quality changes arising from forest fires and found that the increases in human health risks were 'substantial' in economic terms and were second only to timber losses in terms of dollars and cents.

Making a case study of a 2001 fire in Chisholm, Alberta, that ravaged 116,000 hectares of forest land and burned buildings in and around the town, researchers used satellite imagery and monitoring stations to assess the contributions of the fire to concentrations of particulate matter (PM) in the air. The seven-day blaze caused PM levels 160 kilometres away in Edmonton, Alberta, to soar well above the air quality guidelines for Canada.

In terms of values of health risks, the study estimates the effects as between $9 million and $12 million, with 95 per cent of the impacts related to increases in mortality risk, restricted activity days, lost wages, and acute respiratory symptoms suffered by those affected by the poorer air quality. "The overall health impacts were significant, when compared to other related costs such as fire-fighting," said Dr. Vic Adamowicz, a professor of rural economy at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study.

In comparison, other costs related to the fire included a $2 million loss of bridge infrastructure, losses of 75 buildings including 21 homes (that were not economically assessed in the Chisholm fire report), and $1 million attributed to loss of electrical power infrastructure. Fire-fighting costs for the week-long blaze came in at $10 million. The only cost which exceeded health effects was an estimated $20 million loss for timber damage.

There has been little analysis of the health effects of smoke caused by wildfires, but about one-third of PM emissions in Canada are from forest fires. Previous studies have shown that climate change is making conditions ripe for more wildfires, yet air quality concerns are not typically included when budgets are being planned.

"Though the costs wouldn't be as high in every fire, it is interesting to note that even in this case study, only one or two days of the fire generated smoke effects over a large city in the region," Adamowicz noted.

Ultimately, evaluating health effects may not affect how fires are managed, but the information can provide insights into the returns on investment to fire management, he added. The approach used in this study will be used to construct a map that shows key areas in Alberta at risk of experiencing high health costs resulting from forest fires, so that fire-fighting strategies can be adjusted accordingly.

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The study was funded by the Sustainable Forest Management Network.

For more information on this study contact:
Bev Betkowski
Public Affairs Officer
Univerity of Alberta
780-492-3808
beverly.betkowski@ualberta.ca


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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