Mar 6, 2024 - News

How wildfires impact mental health

Illustration of a brain on fire.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

University of Washington researchers have found that wildfires can worsen mental health.

Why it matters: A number of studies have shown the impacts of wildfire smoke on respiratory and cardiovascular systems, but this is believed to be the first to examine the impact of wildfires on mental health, per UW Medicine.

  • The results, published last month in JAMA Open Network, underscore the need for services that improve mental resilience before, during and after fires, the researchers said.

The big picture: Wildfire seasons are getting longer, and larger fires are increasingly common in the West.

What they found: Researchers analyzed psychotropic prescription data on 7 million people over an eight-year period following 25 large fires on the West Coast, each of which burned at least 25,000 acres.

  • They found an increase in prescriptions for antidepressants, anxiety medications and mood stabilizers in the six weeks after the fire, compared with the period before the fire.

What they're saying: "This research adds a significant amount of evidence that there is a really substantial mental health impact related to wildfire in our communities," said lead author Zack Wettstein, a UW Medicine emergency medicine doctor.

State of play: Washington's below-average snowpack is already raising concern about fire season here, interim state climatologist Karin Bumbaco told Axios.

  • If snow melts early, as is expected, vegetation will dry out sooner, making the 2024 wildfire season longer, she said.
  • A hotter and drier summer is also being forecast for the region by the Climate Prediction Center.

What we're watching: The Legislature is expected to restore $36 million in funding for wildfire prevention from House Bill 1168 that was cut last year, Michael Kelly, a spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources, told Axios this week.

  • Among other actions, the department is preparing for fire season by hiring and training firefighters and lining up aircraft and heavy equipment with a goal of keeping 90% of fires on DNR land to 10 acres or less, Kelly said.
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