When a major wildfire makes headlines, chances are pretty good that the news will talk about how much it costs to try to fight the fire, and often for good reason. But did you know that the health damage from wildfire smoke can actually cost more than is spent on fighting a wildfire?
Analysis comparing cardiorespiratory-related death rates during a wildfire to the death rate expected if that wildfire was not happening allows estimation of the number of “excess” deaths – that is, those that can be attributed to the wildfire’s smoke.
For example, late October 2003 was a bad time for wildfires in southern California, with 14 wildfires occurring almost simultaneously. Exposure to the smoke produced while these wildfires burned 750,000 acres was linked to the death of 133 people. The elderly and people living in areas that already had extremely high air-pollution levels were hit particularly hard.
While attributing a monetary value to any individual human life is unthinkable, standard economics numbers based on a “statistical” life (i.e. the chance of an average person dying) tell us that these smoke-related deaths cost society anywhere between $173 million and $1.73 billion – which is a wide range but certainly more than the $123 million that was estimated as spent on suppressing that fire.
For more info: Kochi, Champ, Loomis, and Donovan (2012). Valuing mortality impacts of smoke exposure from major southern California wildfires. Journal of Forest Economics, 18(1), 61-75.