Editors’ Vox is a blog from AGU’s Publications Department.

Smoke from biomass burning is a significant source of air pollution and smoke inhalation is detrimental to human health. Where and when landscape fires occur, what pollutants they emit, and what impact this air pollution has on human health and well-being are questions explored across different scientific disciplines and in a new book published by AGU, Fire, Smoke, and Health: Tracking the Modeling Chain from Flames to Health and Well-Being. We asked the editors why it is important for us to understand these relationships and how their book can help create foundational knowledge, allowing interdisciplinary teams to interact and address the impacts of biomass burning on human health.

What do you mean by ‘landscape fire’ and ‘biomass burning’?

The term “landscape fire” refers to any fire that burns across a landscape, as opposed to structure fire, which impacts structures (i.e., buildings). The term “biomass burning” refers to the burning of any live or dead vegetation material. For our purposes, we use the term biomass burning as the general term throughout the book, as the terms are very close in meaning, although we are focused on landscape fires. Landscape fires are also often referred to as wildland fires or bushfires.  

Wildfire in the Pacific Northwest, United States in 2013. Credit: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington, CC BY 2.0 DEED

What happens to smoke from landscape fires – how does it transform, how does it move, how does it interact with other things? 

Smoke from landscape fires is composed of a dynamic mixture of chemicals and particulate matter that degrade air quality. In the smoke transport process, plumes of emissions rise and interact with the atmosphere and are then transported downwind. The chemical composition of smoke depends on this process and is highly variable in space and time, changing as the smoke disperses from the source. For example, smoke near the source of a fire may contain high levels of particulate matter pollutants. Then, as the smoke rises and interacts with the atmosphere, chemical reactions can occur, creating secondary pollutants such as ozone. 

Why is it important for us to understand the relationships between biomass burning emissions and human health outcomes? 

Landscape fires are one of the most common natural disasters or events that people are exposed to globally.

Landscape fires are one of the most common natural disasters or events that people are exposed to globally. Smoke from biomass burning is a major source of air pollutants such as particulate matter, volatile organic carbon, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, all of which are known to be detrimental to human health.

We know that landscape fire emissions have been associated with respiratory issues, and disproportionately affect at-risk populations like pregnant women, children, and the elderly. Additionally, because fire emissions can be transported vast distances with the wind, there is often a large spatial range of impact. Landscape fires are also occurring at a higher frequency than before and are predicted to worsen with climate change. Because of this, it is important to understand the health impacts associated with smoke exposure so that prevention and intervention strategies can be developed and improved. 

Smoke from wildfires in Quebec, Canada shrouds New York City on Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023. Credit: Marc A. Hermann / MTA, CC BY 2.0 DEED

This book is an outcome of sessions held at scientific conferences over several years. Why did you choose to present the findings and discussions from those gatherings as a book? 

Since AGU’s Fall Meeting in 2019, interest in the impact of biomass smoke on human health has grown rapidly among researchers, resource managers, and health practitioners. However, there is limited collaboration between these disciplines. This makes it challenging for professionals from one discipline to effectively incorporate important concepts from other disciplines into their methodologies.

We hope that this book will help increase transdisciplinary awareness to reduce knowledge gaps and support more well-rounded and effective management and solutions. 

We chose to present these findings in book format to compile foundational knowledge from different disciplines into one accessible resource. We believe it will be more accessible to a wider audience than journal manuscripts or other studies, which tend to be more technical and laborious for non-experts to navigate and understand.

Overall, we hope that this book will help increase transdisciplinary awareness to reduce knowledge gaps and support more well-rounded and effective management and solutions. 

How does your book address and present the transdisciplinary nature of this topic?  

The book can help professionals from a wide range of disciplines develop more effective and informed methods for dealing with the impact of biomass fire smoke on human health. This area of study involves so many disciplines that collaboration is vital for the development of effective solutions. The book will help facilitate collaboration by providing a summary of fundamental concepts from different disciplines and a standardized vocabulary with which to discuss them.

It is structured into three parts that cover the three main disciplines involved in smoke impact: fire science (Part I: From Fires to Emissions), atmospheric science and chemistry (Part II: From Emissions to Concentrations), and human health (Part III: From Concentrations to Health Outcomes). This will help experts from different fields get a quick comprehensive understanding of other disciplines and communicate effectively. 

 The Castle Rock wildfire near Ketchum, Idaho in September 2007. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CC BY 2.0 DEED

Who do you hope will read and utilize this book? 

Our hope is that practitioners from fields like fire science, atmospheric chemistry, resource management, epidemiology, and healthcare, or anyone else interested in learning more about the impacts of landscape fire smoke on human health, will use this book to gain insight about fields outside their own expertise and to have a reference resource for information within their own field. Our goal is to help professionals from the various disciplines that deal with this topic understand basics from other disciplines and therefore develop collaborative methodologies and solutions to the serious health impacts of landscape fires.

No one discipline is equipped to tackle these problems alone. Understanding and incorporating knowledge from other disciplines is imperative to finding the most effective ways to mitigate the impacts of landscape fire emissions on human health.

Landscape Fire, Smoke, and Health: Linking Biomass Burning Emissions to Human Well-Being, 2023. ISBN: 978-1-119-75700-9. List price: $215.95 (hardcover), $173.00 (e-book)

Chapter 1 is freely available. Visit the book’s page on Wiley.com and click on “Read an Excerpt” below the cover image.

—Nancy French (nhfrench@mtu.edu; 0000-0002-2389-3003), Michigan Tech Research Institute, USA; Tatiana Loboda (0000-0002-2537-2447), University of Maryland, USA; and Robin Puett (0000-0002-3418-4341), University of Maryland, USA

Editor’s Note: It is the policy of AGU Publications to invite the authors or editors of newly published books to write a summary for Eos Editors’ Vox.

Citation: French, N., T. Loboda, and R. Puett (2023), The connections between landscape fires and your health, Eos, 104, https://doi.org/10.1029/2023EO235037. Published on 20 December 2023.
This article does not represent the opinion of AGU, Eos, or any of its affiliates. It is solely the opinion of the author(s).
Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

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