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Wildfire pollution could be killing more than the fires

A new study uses modeling to show that as many as 33,500 people could be dying from wildfire pollution every year

Wildfires the world over have exacted a devastating toll, destroying lives with increased frequency as warming temperatures and questionable forest management practices have made fires larger, more intense and more frequent. 

While the direct costs are stark and unquestionable, a new study published Wednesday in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health uses modeling in an attempt to make the case that the indirect costs from wildfires are just as lethal. 

Professor Yuming Guo and Dr. Shanshan Li, from Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine in Melbourne, Australia, used a model that showed more than 33,500 deaths can be directly attributed to particulate matter emitted from wildfires annually. 

The study concluded that 3,200 people die in 210 U.S. cities every year due to pollution emanating from wildfires burning throughout the American West. But the problem is not confined to America, the researchers say. 

In fact, wildfires burning across the Siberian steppe since 2019 have released a record amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and have contributed to the accumulation of wildfire pollution around the globe. 

“The pollution from wildfire smoke can spread as far as 1000 kilometers away and the risk of wildfires is projected to increase as climate change worsens,” said Guo, the lead author of the study.

For this reason, the model employed by the researchers showed that wildfire-related fine particulate matter could be responsible for as many as 7,000 deaths annually in Japan, 3,000 annual deaths in Mexico, 1,200 deaths in China and 5,200 deaths in South Africa.

In order to come to its conclusions, the researchers used mortality data from the Multi-City Multi-Country Collaborative Study, which is composed of an international team of researchers looking to provide epidemiological evidence on the connection between health and weather. 

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The researchers used a machine learning model to estimate the amount of fine particulate matter entering various international cities due to wildfire emissions while using particulate matter measurements and weather data. 

Guo and the other researchers concentrated on fine particulate matter, one of the pollutants in wildfire smoke that researchers find most concerning because its microscopic size allows it to penetrate the lungs and enter the human circulatory system. 

“Policymakers and public health professionals should raise awareness of wildfire pollution to guide prompt public responses and take actions to reduce exposure,” Guo wrote in the conclusion. “Effective wildland management policies and practices should be implemented to manage vegetation and mitigate climate change as far as possible.”

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The June, 2020 Bighorn Fire burning in Ventana Canyon as the sun sets, and the fire becomes more visible Thursday evening.