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Socio-demographic and health vulnerability in prescribed-burn exposed versus unexposed counties near the National Forest System

Author(s): Michelle C. Kondo, Colleen Reid, Miranda H. Mockrin, Warren Heilman, David Long
Year Published: 2022

Prescribed fire is an increasingly important tool in restoring ecological conditions and reducing uncontrolled wildfire. Prescribed burn techniques could reduce public health impacts associated with wildfire smoke exposure. However, there have been few assessments of the health impacts of prescribed burning, and potential vulnerabilities among populations exposed to smoke from prescribed fires. Our study area focused on counties in and near U.S. National Forests – a set of lands distributed across the U.S. In county-level analyses, we compared the sociodemographic and health characteristics of areas that were exposed with those that were not exposed to prescribe burns during the years 2010–2019 on a national level and within three regions. In addition, using spatial error regression models, we looked for associations between prescribed fire exposure and health behaviors and outcomes while controlling for spatial autocorrelation. On a national level, we found disproportionate prescribed fire exposure in rural counties with higher percentage mobile home and vacant housing units, and higher percentage African-American and white populations. Regionally, we found evidence of disproportionate exposure to prescribed burns among counties with lower percentage white population, higher percentage Hispanic population and mobile homes in the southern region, and to high poverty counties with high vacancy in the western region. These findings could indicate that vulnerable populations face potential health risks from prescribed burning smoke exposure, but also that they are not missing out on the benefits of prescribed burning, which could involve considerably lower smoke exposure compared to uncontrolled wildfire. In addition, in regression analyses, we found no evidence of disproportionate health burden in exposed compared to unexposed counties. Awareness of these patterns could influence both large-scale or institutional polices about prescribed burning practice, and could be used to build decision-making factors into modeling tools and smoke management plans, as well as community-engagement around wildfire risk reduction.

Citation: Kondo, Michelle C.; Reid, Colleen E.; Mockrin, Miranda H.; Heilman, Warren E.; Long, David. 2022. Socio-demographic and health vulnerability in prescribed-burn exposed versus unexposed counties near the National Forest System. Science of The Total Environment 806, Part 2:150564. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.150564
Topic(s): Fuels, Fuel Treatments & Effects, Prescribed Fire-use treatments, Smoke & Air Quality, Smoke & Populations, Smoke Emissions
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 24179
FRAMES RCS number: 65183
Record updated: Feb 2, 2022