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We’ve all heard the old adage, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” but the reverse is now top of mind for those of us in northern California. Since November 8th, the Camp Fire in Butte County has burned over 150,000 acres, over 17,000 structures and has claimed over 80 lives, with several hundred souls still missing. While I certainly don’t want to downplay the fire’s devastation, I do want to draw attention to another dangerous matter: the air pollution it has generated.
I can’t imagine what it was like in Chico and the other areas near and directly in the smoke plume’s path. Here I sat, about 200 miles from ground zero, Paradise, and I felt the smoke’s effects: a dull headache, burning eyes (somewhat relieved when not wearing my contacts), a scratchy throat and persistent cough – despite (like most area citizens) wearing a mask when venturing outdoors.
As I write this, the rain has finally come. Relief and fresh air have arrived. But what are the lasting health effects of inhaling fine particles for the better part of two weeks? We all heeded officials’ warnings that physical exertion can exasperate smoke’s adverse effects: no sports or P.E. for my son, no walks for my dog and we stayed indoors as much as possible. Yet it’s impossible to completely avoid the microscopic particles. There are studies of the effects of severe smoke inhalation from short-term exposure to dense smoke. But according to local news stories, there are no studies of the long-term health consequences of prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke-filled air.
Wildfire projection models focus on estimating where fires will occur, not if they will occur; this seems to be a given. Perhaps as the sophistication and accuracy of wildfire predictors improve, the necessary risk-reduction steps can be taken. Specialists in diverse disciplines, from meteorology to combustion engineering to data science, are working on ways to understand, and ultimately mitigate, wildfire risk. Most agree on the need for a multifaceted versus single strategy to avoid future disasters. Climate change may be the most difficult cause around which to get our arms and find solutions. While we can’t ignore it, there may be more pragmatic and immediate approaches to explore, including prescribed burning to reduce fuel for wildfires.
If we can’t entirely eliminate wildfires, one method to mitigate property damage is to modify land use zoning and building codes; though some believe fire suppression and fire-resistant building material technological advancements will have minimal impact, thus pointing to needed societal and political changes. The recent northern California fires may be the result of an aging utility infrastructure’s inability to withstand the powerful winds. Individual power sources like solar could reduce, but likely not eliminate, the need for power lines to crisscross the forests. There are no simple answers, but something must change. Our lives and loved ones depend on it.
Linda Brobeck is a Director and Consulting Actuary with Pinnacle Actuarial Resources, Inc. in the San Francisco, California office. She has worked in the property/casualty insurance industry since 1986 and has been providing actuarial consulting services since 2011. Her consulting career has focused on ratemaking and predictive modeling for several lines of insurance including personal and commercial automobile, homeowners, and professional liability. Linda is a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society and a Member of the American Academy of Actuaries. She serves as the Vice Chairperson of the Program Planning Committee for the CAS and is a member of the CAS Examination Committee.
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