In recent years there has been a rise in the number and severity of wildfires worldwide, a devastating effect of human-induced climate change. In a special report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Rongbin Xu and colleagues summarise the status of wildfires, current knowledge and gaps about the health risks of wildfires, and the challenges ahead.
They start by explaining how climate change can increase the chances of the essential conditions to begin a wildfire being present. These conditions, also known as the fire triangle, are fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source. Furthermore, they caution that the interplay between climate change and wildfires could be reinforcing and synergistic.
The health risks associated with wildfires are classified as direct and indirect. The direct health risks include burns, injuries, mental health effects, and death due to exposure to flames or radiant heat. The short- and long-term indirect health risks are associated with smoke and can disproportionally affect vulnerable populations such as people with pre-existing cardiac or respiratory conditions.
There are ways to mitigate these risks, the authors say. As trusted sources, health professionals are responsible for educating the public about the health risks of wildfires and risk-reduction strategies.