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New California Legislation Would Help Us Better Understand Wildfire Health Impacts


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Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) made headlines across the country when we published a report demonstrating how worsening wildfires in the West are linked to the unrelenting, shameless emissions of the fossil fuel companies. While we hope that our science will bolster efforts to hold these companies accountable, the truth is that such accountability is necessary but insufficient.

Climate-change fueled disasters will continue to have impacts on human health. We must measure these impacts and mitigate them. Wildfires have the most obvious and devastating effects on the lives of the people living in the neighborhoods that they destroy, but the impact they have on our air and water can spread far beyond the burn scar.

Two bills being considered by the California legislature can help mitigate the public health impacts of wildfires. UCS supports the passage of both.

Most of California’s water comes from rain and snow that falls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and flows down to the population centers throughout the state. Usually, vegetation and soil will help soak up the rain and slow the flow of rainwater, nutrients, and soil over the land.

When a wildfire burns away vegetation and scorches soil, the soil becomes less absorbent and precipitation flows more quickly into the rivers, eroding away soil and picking up nutrients in higher quantities than usual, along with ash and debris. Worse, if a wildfire burns through an area populated by humans, when the rain falls, toxic chemicals from burning cars, plastics, and all sorts of synthetic products can flow into waterways and drinking water systems.

For more on the impacts that wildfires have on water quantity and quality, read our 2022 factsheet, Fire and Water in the Western United States.

Anyone who has lived in California for the past few years knows that our summers are plagued with unhealthy air quality days. And as is too often the case, the Central Valley bears the brunt of this impact.

There is an enormous amount of data on the adverse health impacts associated with poor air quality: respiratory issues, cognitive issues, impacts on pregnant people and their babies, and more. Many California communities already have some of the highest rates of heart and lung disease in the country, and these problems are only made worse by wildfire smoke.

California must continue to aggressively and equitably phase out fossil fuels across all sectors to minimize growth in the size and severity of future wildfires. The state should also plan for and fund projects that make our forests and communities more resilient to wildfire.

However, even with these actions, wildfires are a part of our lives in the western United States, as they have been for generations given our climate and our ecosystems. We must understand and mitigate their impact on human health.

There are two bills currently moving through the California Legislature that the Union of Concerned Scientists supports as key steps towards this end:

Senate Bill 945 (Alvarado-Gil)would require state agencies to create, operate, and maintain a statewide-integrated wildfire smoke and health data platform to facilitate action from state authorities and the medical community to confront this critical, public health issue. We can’t improve what we can’t measure, and the current status quo makes it difficult to get a comprehensive picture of how smoke is affecting the health of Californians throughout the state.
Senate Bill 1176 (Niello) would require state agencies and research entities to form a work group to establish best practices and recommendations for wildfire-impacted communities and first responders to avoid exposure to heavy metals after a wildfire.

California should pass these bills, continue to look for opportunities to make data on wildfire impacts accessible, and make data-informed decisions on protecting people from wildfire-associated human health impacts.


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