Study Examines New Type of Wildfire Health Impact
Authors: Wendy Fulks
Forest Service thinning projects near Alpine helped decrease the severity of burning in the 2011 Wallow Fire. Credit: Sarah McCaffrey
A new journal article by David Eisenman, Sarah McCaffrey, Ian Donatello and Grant Marshall investigates how Arizona’s 2011 Wallow Fire affected the psychological health of part-time and permanent residents of five communities. Investigators were interested in the contribution of “solastalgia,” the loss of solace from the landscape, to residents’ psychological distress one year after the wildfire.
Higher levels of solastalgia were associated with self-reported indicators of clinically significant psychological distress. Interestingly, there was no difference between part-time and permanent residents in the likelihood of experiencing psychological distress.
FAC Net sat down with Sarah McCaffrey to learn more about this new research.
FAC Net: Should it come as a surprise that people living in the Wallow Fire area were negatively psychologically impacted, let’s just say “depressed,” as a result of being surrounded by charred trees?
Sarah: It actually makes sense to me. But I’m not sure it is so much about the “charred trees” as about a landscape they have known and interacted with as part of their daily lives that seems to be dramatically different. I think at some level it is as much about the idea of change as the actual visual change. There were some areas that did look very different – but they could only really be seen once you drove up into the National Forest – yet some of the people we spoke with who talked about the loss had yet to go “up on the mountain.”
FAC Net: You spent some time interviewing residents to inform the design of the survey used in this research. What was that experience like, and what are some of the things that you learned?
Sarah: I love the opportunity to talk to people, I always learn something new and am also amazed by how resilient people are, the ability to find something positive in the experience if they can. (It is worth noting that the vast majority of our survey respondents did not exhibit significant health issues.) It was really striking in the interviews how much everyone was grieving for a lost landscape. Many people spoke of the National Forest as “our backyard,” so the changes were very personal for them. The consistency of this type of comment across interviews is what led us to include questions on the survey to try to assess whether this grief over landscape change had a health impact.
FAC Net: Your paper lists smoke as the more obvious wildfire health impact. Which is worse, the psychological health impacts, or the smoke impacts of wildfire?
Sarah: I think that will depend on the person. For someone who has, or has a family member with, respiratory issues, then smoke probably has the biggest health impacts. For someone who was extremely attached to the landscape – who went there for recreation, for their livelihood, to rejuvenate – then perhaps the psychological impacts will be more important.
FAC Net: What are some potential implications of this work for people who manage landscapes affected by large wildfires?
Sarah: I think the main implication is that we can’t just look at human impacts of fires in terms of loss of buildings and infrastructure. Place attachment is important. People who live near National Forests tend to be there for a reason — they value that landscape and likely have a lot of positive experiences and memories tied up in it, so the changes that fire can create can feel like a major loss. I think this is also the reason why we didn’t find a difference between full-time and part-time residents in relation to solastalgia.
FAC Net: Several FAC Net communities have been affected by large wildfires in the past three years. How might disaster assistance personnel and FAC practitioners working in these communities apply the results of this research?
Sarah: I think the key thing is to recognize that individuals who ostensibly might not have suffered any concrete losses from the fire might still be adversely affected. Other studies have shown that it can help to involve people in recovery efforts, particularly in volunteer work to restore or rehabilitate the landscape – in effect by helping heal the land they help heal themselves. I also wonder about identifying other ways that we might help people see or find value in the changed landscape. It is important that we recognize and acknowledge the feelings of loss around the landscape changes, but perhaps we could also find ways to talk about how the changes can be positive for some species, or are simply part of the natural fire cycle.
Do these research findings resonate with you? Why or why not? Share your experiences about the psychological impacts of wildfires in the comment section below.