Daniels Law

How Wildfires Affect Human Health and the Environment

October 19, 2023 · Wildfire

In 2022 alone, 68,988 wildfires in the United States burned over 7.5 million acres. That's over 10,000 more cases and nearly half a million more acres burned than in 2021.

California is one of the states where wildfires occur the most and have also intensified. Of these incidents, 90% result from human causes, some of which have a negligence factor.

Regardless of the cause, wildfires can adversely affect people, animals, and the environment.

Knowing what they can do to your health is even more crucial if you were near one when it occurred. You may be able to file a California wildfire lawsuit if it has affected your health.

This guide discusses the effects of wildfires and what to do if you're a victim, so please read on.

Wildfires and Human Health

Wildfires can cause burn injuries and short- and long-term respiratory and cardiovascular effects. They can also affect the immune and reproductive systems. They may even result in severe trauma that can have a lifelong impact.

Burn and Heat-Related Injuries

The flames of a wildfire can cause direct first to third-degree burn injuries. However, the heat generated by a forest fire can be enough to cause thermal burns.

Forest fires can reach 2,000° Fahrenheit or higher. That's about a fifth of the temperature of the sun's surface. This heat can cause thermal burns, damaging and killing the body's tissue cells.

Exposure to wildfire heat, even from afar, can also lead to heat stress, strain, and exhaustion. A heatwave can compound these effects, potentially causing deadly situations.

Respiratory Effects

Wildfire smoke contains particle pollution, also called particulate matter (PM). This includes PM10, coarse particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less. The other is PM2.5, finer particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less.

PM is harmful as it's inhalable and can irritate the throat and cause damaged lungs. It can lead to breathing difficulties or, worse, lung cancer. PM2.5 is particularly dangerous, as it can enter the bloodstream and affect other organs.

These pollutants can also exacerbate or trigger conditions like asthma and allergies.

Cardiovascular Diseases

Wildfires can raise the risk of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) system diseases. California wildfire studies found smoke exposure raises the risk of sudden cardiac arrest. They also link wildfire smoke exposure with increased ER visits due to:

  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • Heart failure
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Stroke

Older adults (ages 65 and above) appear to be the most at risk for those conditions.

Immunological and Inflammatory Disorders

Wildfire smoke can alter immune cells, whose job is to protect against inflammation. Unfortunately, these changes reverse the cells' function, making them promote inflammation instead.

Inflammation can cause or contribute to many illnesses, including:

  • Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lung diseases, including asthma and COPD
  • Cardiovascular diseases, such as heart ailments and high blood pressure
  • Metabolic disorders, like type 2 diabetes
  • Mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression

Wildfire smoke exposure may also impair immune system functions. People with existing health conditions have the highest risk. However, even healthy individuals may experience symptoms, too.

Pregnancy and Birth Problems

Wildfire smoke exposure during pregnancy can endanger a developing fetus. It may cause or contribute to lower birth weight or preterm birth. Both can raise a baby's risk of developmental disabilities, such as cerebral palsy.

Trauma and Mental Health Effects

Wildfires are unpredictable and move fast, making them particularly stressful to people nearby. This stress can traumatize victims and cause severe emotional distress. Indeed, studies suggest that wildfires can cause symptoms of mental illnesses, including:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

In some people, those symptoms can last for years after the incident.

Wildfires and the Environment

Some low-intensity wildfires are beneficial, "cleaning" and thinning forests of thick, flammable vegetation. Their ashes nourish the soil, becoming essential nutrients for plants.

Unfortunately, many wildfires, including the recent ones in California, are high-intensity. These incidents cause far more damage to the environment, wildlife, and habitats.

Reduced Air Quality

Aside from particulate matter, wildfires also emit carbon monoxide (CO). CO is a poisonous, flammable, colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. It's toxic to people and, at high levels, even animals and plants.

Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also comprise wildfire smoke. They can be carcinogenic, immunotoxic, and neurotoxic to people and animals. Moreover, they can disrupt human and animal endocrine and reproductive systems.

It's also vital to note that wildfire smoke can travel thousands of miles. For example, in September 2020, the smoke of a California wildfire traveled nearly 5,500 miles. As a result, even people in the Netherlands suffered from its effects.

Water Contamination

Wildfires can cause physical, chemical, and biological changes to water formations. These often result from stormwater runoff polluting lakes, streams, rivers, and reservoirs.

Stormwater runoff transports debris, sediment, and high levels of nutrients to water bodies. The last one may seem ideal, but it's not; for example, it can lead to harmful algal blooms (HABs). HABs can endanger fish, wildlife habits, domestic animals, and humans.

Loss of Wildlife and Habitats

Scientists say California wildfires in 2020 may have claimed the lives of 300 to 600 cougars.

Wildfires can be deadly to wildlife through direct burns and smoke inhalation. However, most wildlife mortalities occur after wildfires destroy habitats.

For example, once burned, dead trees no longer provide a home to canopy animals. These include many birds, mammals, rodents, and serpents, to name a few.

Canopy loss due to dead or damaged trees also dries out forest floors. This creates opportunities for grasses and shrubs, particularly invasive species, to grow. This robs native species of their space, which can lead to their extinction.

Forest animals that lose their habitats also migrate to areas with more food and shelter. In some cases, they move near densely human-populated places. This increases their risk of human and domestic animal interaction.

That can raise the risk of wildlife animals catching diseases from humans and pets. Conversely, they may transmit diseases to people and domestic animals.

What to Do if You're a Wildfire Victim

The first thing to do is to seek medical help immediately. This is even more crucial if you've inhaled wildfire smoke or have suffered burn injuries. Please remember that even short-term smoke exposure can result in chronic health effects.

You should also safeguard copies of your hospital and medical records. A wildfire or burn injury lawyer can use these documents to prove your losses, pain, and suffering.

Should You File a Wildfire Lawsuit?

If a wildfire has adversely affected your health, consider filing a lawsuit. Do the same if you've experienced property damage or losses due to the incident.

If you wish to file a lawsuit, hiring a California wildfire lawyer to assist you would be in your best interest. They can help increase your chances of success by providing the following services.

Investigate the Wildfire's Causes

You may recover compensation for a wildfire caused by someone else's negligence. In this case, the at-fault party may have caused or contributed to the fire by:

  • Setting off fireworks
  • Leaving campfires unattended
  • Discarding cigarettes without putting them out first
  • Failing to attend to defective electrical lines
  • Using malfunctioning equipment
  • Committing intentional arson

A wildfire recovery lawyer can help by investigating all possible fire causes. They'll gather and review evidence that will allow them to determine who's at fault. During their investigation, they may find that more than one party is behind the incident.

Your lawyer will then look for proof to help establish the negligence of all at-fault parties.

Document Your Damages and Losses

A highly experienced wildfire damage lawyer often specializes in burn injury cases. They also work with other professionals who are experts in the effects of wildfire smoke. With their help, they can determine the actual costs of your injuries, which may include:

  • Immediate and long-term treatments
  • Reconstructive surgeries
  • Rehabilitative therapies
  • Loss of income, both past and future
  • Pain, suffering, and emotional distress
  • Necessary mental health treatment

Your lawyer will also document all other losses you may have incurred from the wildfire. Some examples include the following:

  • Property repair or replacement costs
  • Evacuation-related expenses (e.g., temporary housing and car rental)
  • Loss of personal belongings and valuables
  • Depreciation of your home and land's value
  • Damaged trees and landscaping on your property
  • Harmed or lost pets, farm animals, or livestock

Once documented, your wildfire lawyer will communicate with the appropriate insurance companies. They will negotiate a settlement that adequately covers your damages and losses. If the insurers don't settle or agree to a fair amount, your lawyer will take your case to court.

Hire an Experienced Northern California Wildfire Lawyer

From burns to lung issues and heart disease, wildfires can cause all these effects and more. As a victim, it's your right to seek compensation from those who may be at fault for the wildfire you experienced.

For over 25 years, the legal team at Daniels Law has helped victims of wildfires. Our expertise has allowed us to build an extensive portfolio of successful cases. We have recovered millions in compensation for our clients.

So, allow us to assist you in filing your wildfire lawsuit. Contact us today to schedule a meeting.

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