Forest fires a huge cost to health

Forest fires don't just have an impact on the environment, but on human health, according to a new study from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada,which attempted to put a pricetag on the actual economic losses caused by one such fire.

The study, published recently in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research, assessed the economic impact of air quality changes arising from forest fires and found that the increases in human health risks were 'substantial' in economic terms and were second only to timber losses in terms of dollars and cents.

Making a case study of a 2001 fire in Chisholm, Alberta, that ravaged 116,000 hectares of forest land and burned buildings in and around the town, researchers used satellite imagery and monitoring stations to assess the contributions of the fire to concentrations of particulate matter (PM) in the air. The seven-day blaze caused PM levels 160 kilometres away in Edmonton, Alberta, to soar well above the air quality guidelines for Canada.

In terms of values of health risks, the study estimates the effects as between $9 million and $12 million, with 95 per cent of the impacts related to increases in mortality risk, restricted activity days, lost wages, and acute respiratory symptoms suffered by those affected by the poorer air quality. "The overall health impacts were significant, when compared to other related costs such as fire-fighting," said Dr. Vic Adamowicz, a professor of rural economy at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study.

In comparison, other costs related to the fire included a $2 million loss of bridge infrastructure, losses of 75 buildings including 21 homes (that were not economically assessed in the Chisholm fire report), and $1 million attributed to loss of electrical power infrastructure. Fire-fighting costs for the week-long blaze came in at $10 million. The only cost which exceeded health effects was an estimated $20 million loss for timber damage

Contact: Bev Betkowski
University of Alberta

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