Three years ago Lucia Woo woke to find her hotel room filled with smoke. Southern winds had carried it into Anchorage, Alaska, where she was attending a conference, across the Chickaloon Bay from a wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula. “I thought I was dying. I wasn’t dying, I was just having this click moment: ‘OK, this is what I might want to study when I go back to FES.’”
Inspired by smoke, Lucia conducted her master’s research at FES on the relationships between wildfire, air pollution, and climate change in Alaska. With YIBS’ support, she shared her results with the people who manage the lands that fuel the fires. That way, her work can affect Alaskan policy.
Reading the future of wildfire is difficult—it is driven by a complex of factors, including fuel, climate, and winds. Lucia used models developed by researchers at Harvard to predict fire patterns both now and in the hotter, more humid years of the mid-century under climate change. Generally, she explained, researchers expect wildfires to increase in severity and frequency, and to burn later and later into the seasons. She asked how this would play out across the Alaskan landmass. But she also wanted to know how changed wildfire patterns will affect residents’ health.
Under the guidance of professor Michelle Bell, Lucia looked at the relationships between wildfire and the health of the region’s people. If wildfire smoke increases, she thought, it may expose Alaskans to more pollutants, fine particles tied directly to respiratory illnesses. And it could affect population groups differently.
“I looked to see if certain subpopulations of Alaskan communities experience different levels of air pollution from wildfires—to see if there would be any potential health disparities among these communities.” Lucia examined characteristics that included race and ethnicity, occupation, income, and, she said, “native tribes, to see which tribes might have potentially higher burden.”
Lucia noted that current air quality data on Alaska’s rural areas is sparse. Federal air quality monitors, she noted, are few and far between up country. “Understandably, there’s a limited budget to be worked with and they want to place air quality monitors where there are more populous communities. But that means that we neglect the public health concerns of those who live in rural or remote rural areas. In Alaska that takes on an entirely different meaning. Those who tend to live in those rural communities are indigenous populations.”
Health, social justice, and smoke data make a hot topic. “The Alaskan communities have been severely underserved, as far as scientific inquiries go. It seems like people don’t think Alaska needs very high quality data, and that’s crazy.”
Lucia can already see the contributions her work will make. “The research field that examines the link between wildfire smoke exposure and human health is still emerging. I’m excited to say my research will contribute to that field. It’s part of the process, like I’m throwing one stone towards that tower.”
Not only will her work contribute to the literature, it can also directly affect policy—particularly in the hands of the Alaska Bureau of Land Management.
“Right now they’re updating the forest management plans. They’re trying to see how the management plans they make affect Alaskan communities—and human health isn’t something that they have thought explicitly about.”
“It’s interesting to me because the EPA doesn’t consider air pollution from wildfires when assessing an area’s air quality because they consider wildfires to be a natural source and not an anthropogenic one. They call it uncontrollable when in fact no, as we heard from this guy from the fire agency, it’s not entirely hundred percent uncontrollable. We can make management decisions to help mitigate health impacts from wildfire smoke exposure.”
Land managers monitor and control fuel loads, the amount of material like trees and brush in an area that can catch fire, and decide how to handle fires once they’ve started. Knowing the adverse effects of a fire in the region, having Lucia’s work, will help them decide how to act.
“Alaska is at the forefront of climate change. People need to start paying attention—and they are,” Lucia explained. And YIBS helped Lucia make her work known to these managers.
“Without YIBS funding I could not have travelled out to Alaska. Because of the connections made during that trip, I was able to present to the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC)’s Wildfires and Health teams.” The committee invited Lucia to speak to scientists and decision-makers from federal, Alaska state, Native tribe, academic, NGO, and industry entities. “It’s exciting because they are doing the legwork for me to make my research more relevant. Without YIBS that wouldn’t have happened.”
-Edited by Juliana Hanle