As Fire Threats Grow, Exploring and Treating the Impacts on People, Animals and the Environment
In the small hours of Oct. 8, 2017, Geraldine Calderon woke to feed her baby and smelled smoke.
“It’s a life-changing experience when you’re getting your baby out of bed at 3 in the morning and, you know, driving her through a highway where you can’t really see anything but flames in front of you,” said Calderon, an emergency room physician at Ukiah Valley Medical Center, in a videotaped interview for the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center.
As Californians have fled ferocious wildfires in recent years, UC Davis scientists, veterinarians, physicians and teachers have also been responding to that trauma: treating people and animals, investigating the effects on mental and physical health, and trying to discover what the future might hold as wildfires burn into towns and suburbs.
WHAT-NOW for public health
Burn specialists at UC Davis Health treated 15 adult patients injured during the 2018 Camp Fire.
A year earlier, the Sonoma/Napa fires inspired Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of public health sciences and director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at UC Davis, to develop the Wildfires and Health: Assessing the Toll in NorthWest California (WHAT-NOW) survey.
"I personally wanted to find a way to address what was going on with the resources of our center,” said Hertz-Picciotto.
More than 2,000 households and almost 7,000 people in 16 counties have responded to the online survey. Questions address peoples’ experiences during and after the fires: losses of people, pets and property; health problems, including respiratory problems, infections and mental health; and in collaboration with local governments, immediate and future needs of fire survivors, evacuees and others.
Initial survey results show that stress and anxiety are the most commonly reported symptoms, continuing for months after the events, Hertz-Picciotto said. Ongoing respiratory problems were also reported in both otherwise healthy people and in susceptible groups, such as people with asthma. Susceptible groups reported particularly high rates of respiratory symptoms.
“We do see that even people who don’t have prior respiratory problems are reporting pretty serious respiratory effects in the immediate aftermath — with asthmatics it’s four times higher,” she said.
Hertz-Picciotto plans to follow the survey cohort forward over time. Most studies of the health impacts of fires focus on the short term. But respiratory diseases and mental health issues may take years to manifest.
Rebecca J. Schmidt, assistant professor of public health sciences, is leading the B-SAFE, Bio-Specimen Assessment of Fire Effects, study. B-SAFE is a longitudinal study following a group of women who were exposed to wildfire smoke in 2017 while pregnant or just before becoming pregnant, and their babies.
“There are a lot of concerns if you’re pregnant during these wildfires, we don’t know what’s in the smoke and also there’s a literature on the effects of stress in pregnancy. So we thought it was important to take a look at women who were pregnant during the fire emergency and also who became pregnant right afterwards,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt’s team has collected placenta and cord blood samples and is collecting hair and nail clippings, which can record such things as stress hormones and heavy metal exposure. They are also collecting saliva from the babies to examine markers of exposure. She hopes to be able to follow these children forward to study whether they have later health effects.
Hertz-Picciotto and Schmidt plan to extend their studies to include those affected by 2018 Camp Fire as well.