5 Negative Effects of Wildfires

August 16, 2022

Wildfires can have a variety of negative effects, impacting our environment and our health. Learn more about the harmful outcomes of wildfire with guidance from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA).

Wildfires play an essential role in the health of certain ecosystems, but they can also have many negative effects on our environment and our health.

Preparedness is key to averting the worst outcomes, but it is rare to avoid all negative effects. For example, even if your home is thoroughly hardened against fire, you may still experience air pollution, health issues, loss of surrounding property, a disruption in communications, water, or power, and other problems that wildfires cause.

So, what are the negative effects of wildfire? Here are five that you may witness or experience firsthand, particularly if you live in an area that is prone to fire, such as California.1

1. Pollution: Air Quality and Water Quality

When it comes to pollution, wildfires negatively affect the environment in two major areas: air quality and water quality.

Air Quality

Wildfires produce smoke, fine particulates, and greenhouse gases when they burn. Over time, and with enough wildfire incidents, these substances can impact air quality for the worse.

For example, Mariposa County in California is renowned for its clean air. However, due to harsh wildfire seasons in recent years, the air in Mariposa County ranked highest in the United States for annual average concentrations of fine particulates in 2020.

Furthermore, experts believe that pollution from California’s violent 2020 fire season offset “decades” of gains in air quality.2

Water Quality

Wildfires can cause several different substances, including harmful contaminants, sediments, and heavy metals, to leach into nearby water sources. These substances pollute the water and make it unsafe for human or animal consumption, as well as disrupt or destroy aquatic life.3

negative effects of wildfires - air pollution, respiratory
A wildfire can impact air quality for hundreds of miles around, not only in areas near to the blaze.

2. Health: Respiratory and Cardiovascular

Wildfires can have dangerous effects on human health, especially the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Respiratory

Inhalation of smoke and fine particulate matter produced by wildfires causes respiratory issues. These issues can range from irritation of the respiratory system (nose, mouth, throat, and lungs) to serious problems like bronchitis or asthma.

Cardiovascular

Due to a lack of oxygen from inhaling smoke, humans can experience serious cardiovascular issues, including heart attack or heart failure, because of wildfires.4

3. Property: Loss of Property, Crops, Animals, Resources

One of the most significant negative effects of wildfires is the loss of land and property, including homes, crops, animals, and resources.

In the United States, wildfires burn an average of 7.4 million acres annually. In 2020, nearly 18,000 structures were destroyed because of wildfire, and 54% of those were residences.5

Not included in that statistic is the number of pets, agricultural crops, and other types of property loss that people living and working in the wake of the wildfire devastation have experienced.

4. Ecology: Effects on Animals and Plants

Wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems, and are essential for certain species to thrive. However, they can also disrupt animal and plant life if they burn in the same place for an extended period of time.

Animals

Intense wildfires can burn up whole trees as well as ground vegetation. They can also kill or displace animals – both wild and domesticated. In 2018, some 10,000 animals in California were displaced as a result of wildfires.6

Furthermore, as we learned earlier in this article, pollutants from wildfires can contaminate sources of water. These pollutants can harm fish, plant life, and other organisms by disrupting the aquatic ecosystem.

negative effects of wildfire - property loss, ecology
Erosion is a serious concern following highly destructive fires.

Soil Erosion

Soil erosion is also a major ecological problem resulting from wildfires. Once a wildfire sweeps through and burns up vegetation, the soil is no longer stabilized by the plants’ roots and starts to erode. This phenomenon can lead to land degradation, landslides, and more severe flooding.7

5. Logistics: Disruption of Communications, Water, and Power

Wildfires can cause several logistical problems for firefighters and human communities in general.

Communications

Wildfires disrupt communications by damaging utility poles and fiber lines, or when cell towers go down as a result of a power shutdown.8 People often lose or experience reduced cell phone service as a result of fire.

Firefighters typically rely on portable radios to maintain contact with one another. However, limited availability of radio systems is also a reality that firefighters may contend with when responding to large fires.9

Water

Water is an essential resource that firefighters use to help put out wildfires. The water must be gathered, stored, and transported to the site of the fire. Depending on the size, location, topography, and severity of the fire, getting enough water to the location can be a huge effort.

To fight wildfires in California, Cal Fire uses both ground vehicles, such as fire engines, and air vehicles, like helicopters, to transport water. In 2021, Cal Fire transported 6.7 million gallons of water from lakes, ponds, and swimming pools using aircraft.10

Power

Wildfire season in the United States takes place during the hottest and driest months of the year. During heatwaves, when wildfires are more likely to occur, utility companies will shut down their power grids and cut off electricity to lower the risk of wildfire incidents.11

Unfortunately, shutting down electricity can also complicate local government’s efforts to maintain communication, perform evacuations, and administer medical help, should a wildfire occur.

Given their potential negative effects, it is extremely important to be as prepared for a wildfire as possible. You can become more prepared by hardening your home and increasing your knowledge about wildfires in general.

Sources

  1. WFCA, “California Fire Season: In-Depth Guide.” Accessed August 7, 2022.
  2.  Los Angeles Times, “Pollution from California’s 2020 wildfires likely offset decades of air quality gains.” Accessed August 6, 2022.
  3. Environmental Science & Technology, “Wildfire and the Future of Water Supply.” Accessed August 6, 2022.
  4. EPA, “Wildland Fire Research: Health Effects Research.” Accessed August 6, 2022.
  5. Congressional Research Service, “Wildfire Statistics.” Accessed August 6, 2022.
  6. NBC News, “California wildfires: Thousands of animals displaced as fires tear through communities.” Accessed August 7, 2022.
  7. WFCA, “Effects of Wildfires on the Environment.” Accessed August 7, 2022.
  8. KQED, “During a Wildfire, Your Phone Might Stop Working. How Can You Communicate?” Accessed August 7, 2022.
  9. Wildfire Today, Wildland firefighters are battling logistics as well as the fires.” Accessed August 7, 2022.
  10. SFGATE, “Where the water used for fighting California wildfires comes from.” Accessed August 7, 2022.
  11. RAND, “Turning Off Power to Combat Wildfires Could Harm the Very People Who Need Protection.” Accessed August 7, 2022.

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