Congress, Stop Playing With Fire

The economic, health, and social costs of megafires are a national threat. It’s time for swift, decisive action.

Gabe Kleinman
8 min readOct 7, 2021
This should not be normalized. [Source]

Dear Congresswomen and Congressmen,

Wake up and smell the megafire smoke.

Its effects have officially come for us all, whether you’re from Montana, Minnesota, or Maine. The West has been on fire every year for the past five years, all of which have burned on huge swaths of federal land. Our systems are chronically underfunded to handle it, and we’re ~100 years behind on effective forest management.

So what are you going to do about it?

The easy answer: There’s a $14 billion house resolution for hazardous fuel mitigation on the table right now that you can adopt. It’s a step-up from the $675 million you’ve got earmarked. It would be the first critical step in a long journey ahead to solve this. Investing now will save the federal government billions down the line:

“[Better] forest management can save two to three times what it costs to fight and clean up after fires, and shrink the size and intensity of fires up to 75 percent.”

If you need to know more details, then jump on in with me below.

First, let’s build the case for you (I’m an optimist, after all).

This is rather straightforward. Wildfires and megafire smoke are killing your constituents, shortening their lives, clogging our cognitive capabilities, annihilating our well-intended carbon reduction efforts, and devastating economic activity. Let’s start with the latter because it’s the economy, stupid.

The Economy Gets Crushed

Economic activity in the West is being destroyed right now, no matter your party affiliation. While studies and estimates are far-ranging (2018 California wildfires alone reportedly cost the U.S. economy nearly $150 billion), there are specific areas worth exploring more deeply.

Let’s start with tourism
It’s big, and smoke is bad for it: “Two of the most visible industries impacted by wildfire smoke are tourism and outdoor recreation…with the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis calculations [finding] the outdoor recreation economy accounted for $459.8 billion in 2019, or 2.1% of the national gross domestic product.” With Western states accounting for a hefty percentage of that half-a-trillion dollar economy, the national economic impact is widespread.

North Lake Tahoe, as but one regional example, typically sees more than $500M per year in revenue from visitors — but certainly not this year. All National Forests in California are closed due to fire risk, impacting untold number of local businesses that rely on those tourists:

“People tend to avoid national and state parks when wildfire smoke is present, which can depress local accommodation, hospitality and outdoor recreation industries,” says Benjamin Jones, assistant professor of economics at the University of New Mexico.

Agriculture (and wine)
These numbers are difficult to triangulate, but for what we can, it’s staggering. Ash and smoke from the LNU Lightning Complex fire are estimated to have caused “hundreds of millions of dollars” in losses for California agriculture, not to mention public safety power shutoffs that left farms (“One farm experienced $2M in damages…after a public safety power shutoff prevented it from irrigating its trees ahead of time...”) and farm workers in a lurch (the 2020 Glass Fire evaporated $50+ million in lost wages for Napa farmworkers alone). In 2020, Sonoma County wine grape growers were expecting to lose at least $152 million from their harvest as a result of fruit damaged by wildfire smoke, with up to 30% of the 2020 crop left unpicked. That’s just in Sonoma County.

Productivity (memory and problem solving)
This is a problem for everyone, no matter the color of your collar. A few weeks ago I heard

on air pollution and cognition. Turns out there’s a connection, and it’s not a good one:

…exposure to PM2.5 at levels above 25µg/m3 reduces standardized scores in brain games by approximately 0.18 standard deviations….The estimated effect has meaningful implications for the U.S. population: it is equivalent to a reduction of 5.8 percentiles in the distribution of scores reweighted to match the characteristics of the population. Across the seven cognitive domains considered by Lumosity and included in our analysis, the effects on memory are strongest but there is suggestive evidence that problem solving may also be affected. Furthermore, the results appear to be substantially larger for individuals in prime working age — those under the age of 50. Taken together, these findings suggest that occupations that require memory and problem solving may be more affected by PM2.5.

Businesses employing humans under the age of 50 in a position requiring problem solving (i.e. nearly all of them)? Wildfire smoke is putting them at a measurable disadvantage.

And so much more
Supply chains disrupted. Concerts cancelled. Weddings postponed. Loss aversion for future economic activity of all kinds. So much more. Ultimately, billions upon billions of dollars in costs due to the impact of wildfire smoke is not tracked — which means it’s not yet factored into policy planning. If you want to see more, check out pages 151–157 of this report.

Sometimes the anecdotal evidence is so overwhelming one cannot wait for the peer review studies to prove it out. That time is now. What we have is sufficient to bring into the policy-making process on the economy.

[I didn’t even mention the direct cost of fire damage. In California in 2020 alone, fires caused over $12 billion in damages, including over $10 billion in property damage and over $2 billion in fire suppression costs.]

But wait, isn’t there an economic cost to health impacts as well?

“Our models suggest that areas including northern California, Oregon and Idaho in the West, and Florida, Louisiana and Georgia in the East were most affected by wildland fire events in the form of additional premature deaths and respiratory hospital admissions. We estimated the economic value of these cases due to short term exposures as being between $11 and $20 billion (2010$) per year, with a net present value of $63 billion (95% confidence intervals $6–$170); we estimate the value of long-term exposures as being between $76 and $130 billion (2010$) per year, with a net present value of $450 billion (95% confidence intervals $42–$1200).”

Ouch — yes, there is. And these numbers aren’t even updated for the past five years of wildfires.

The Health Implications You Can’t Unsee

This is where it gets dark, although there is reason for hope.

Our children’s DNA is being altered
In a 2020 Stanford University study, researchers found that wildfire smoke exposure was linked to “significantly diminished concentrations of T helper cells, white blood cells which are critical to the immune system.” More:

“The team also found evidence of altered gene expression in children. Wildfire smoke was associated with increased methylation of FOXP3, distorting a protein which is critical to the immune system’s cancer response. Mary Prunicki, the study’s primary author, said the team hypothesized that higher levels of toxic pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide in wildfire smoke are responsible for DNA damage. Prunicki noted that children are particularly at risk because their immune systems are still developing.”

There is good news though: “Prescribed burns are less intense. They’re also more predictable, so people have time to move away,” Nadeau said. “We have found changes in the DNA of people exposed to wildfires, but not in those exposed to prescribed burns.”

Preterm Birth
Every week of exposure to wildfire smoke increases the risk of pre-term birth by 3.4%, with over 7,000 preterm births in California being linked to wildfire smoke exposure from 2007–2012. I fear the numbers that will come out for the past five years, let alone what’s ahead if Congress doesn’t act.

There is good news here, too: “Exposure to low intensity smoke-days had no association with preterm birth…”

Contaminated Soil
California is responsible for 90% (or more) of “organic almonds, artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, dates, figs, grapes, strawberries, lemons, lettuce, plums, and walnuts.” That toxic ash is nestling itself into the soil, water, and all the way to your organic avocado toast. Worse still, these higher concentrations of toxic elements in the ash that make their way into the soil “are more prone to be emitted as dusts during agricultural activities compared to soils beneath.” So farm workers are more likely to breathe it in, and we’re more likely to be eating it.

Premature Death
Just read this.

The Carbon Problem
Lastly, and not to be overlooked, are how megafires have nullified so much of the hard work we have undertaken to slow the growth of our carbon emissions nationally. Last year’s fires “basically [undid] the industrial/power/transport progress of last two decades.” This is, quite obviously, not good for human health either.

And once again, so much more
Sports cancelled, so kids stay inside, inactive. Lost school days. Chronic stress. Mental illness. The list goes on.

Show Me the Money

It’s Fall 2021, and we should be preparing for a Spring 2022 filled with prescribed burns, mechanical thinning, biomass reduction, and more forest resilience at a scale never before seen.

But none of that planning is happening, because every firefighter has their back-against-the-wall with this year’s fires. They don’t have the ability to focus on anything other than what’s in front of them this week. We need an order of magnitude greater funding to help manage the federal, state, and county lands in the West (not to mention private property).

If we get it right, we can have healthier smoke and less of it, driving better health outcomes for kids and pregnant women. We can realize greater economic activity as we rebuild resilient forests. We can restore confidence to businesses seeking uninterrupted commerce, and consumers looking to the West for recreation. We can save extraordinary amounts of money in fire suppression costs by investing up front in mitigation efforts.

And now we’re back to the start. Here again is the draft bill, in which the House Agriculture Committee has allocated $14 billion for hazardous fuels mitigation to prevent megafires:

Please do what’s in our national interest.

If you’re a constituent who has been impacted by megafires or megafire smoke, here is an incredibly easy way you can send a message to your elected officials.