As Wildfire Smoke Increases, Some Populations are at Greater Risk

Smoke rises from the South Moccasin Fire in Montana. Photo by Lauren Kokinda, BLM

Smoke rising from the South Moccasin Fire in Montana. Photo by Lauren Kokinda, BLM.


As wildfire smoke emissions have increased around the country in recent years, some populations are at greater risk.

The impacts of wildfire emissions are partially dependent on the amount, duration, and dispersion of the smoke. They are also dependent on where people and communities are located in relation to the wildfire. In the Western U.S., rural populations are often impacted by smoke, including farmers and ranchers, residents of small towns, migrant workers, and Native Americans residing on or near Tribal lands. In recent years, many fires have been large and burned for a long time, such that the wildland-urban interface and even urban areas were also affected.

People can sometimes take action to protect themselves from smoke emissions. Some people will self-evacuate from smoke-impacted areas, even if they are not required to evacuate because of the wildfire itself. Self-evacuation is at least partially dependent on financial means, available alternate living space, job mobility, childcare availability, physical mobility, and other factors.

When people do not leave the affected area, those who have central air conditioning and a well-insulated home are less impacted. However, in recent years, some wildfires occurred in regions where air conditioning is not the norm, such as western Washington. And too often, people who live near wildfires are not able to afford to install or operate air conditioning. 

When air conditioning is not an option, people can create a “clean room” by closing off part of their home and using a high-quality air filter (such as a HEPA filter) to remove the particulates contained in the smoke from the air. Other forms of mitigation, such as box fans with HVAC filters may provide at least some short-term benefit, even if it is not as effective. However, the ability to obtain high-quality air filters is also dependent at least partially on income. 

Initial efforts of the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, the Department of the Interior, and other federal agencies to identify populations most affected by wildfire smoke show that the primary factors influencing the level of smoke exposure include:

  • The ability to evacuate from the smoke-affected area, 
  • Job mobility, 
  • Availability and use of air conditioning, and 
  • Access to high-performance air filtration systems.

These factors are all dependent on income level. That means wildfire emissions can impact some communities and demographic groups more than others.

Federal agencies are striving to enhance communication and improve mitigation across agencies, land ownership, and diverse populations. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is furthering these efforts by committing to invest some of the historic new funding for wildland fire management in communities that have too often been left behind.

Peter Teensma, PhD, is the Senior Policy Advisor for Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.