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How Wildfires Change Our Behavior

A social scientist explains how people react to disasters like what’s unfolding on the East Coast.

Wildfire smoke covering a brain.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

How do people respond to wildfire smoke? This has become an increasingly pressing question for social scientists, with massive wildfires in California in recent years and much of the East Coast this week engulfed in smoke from fires in Canada.

To better understand the issue, I called up social scientist Francisca Santana, who will be take up a role as an assistant professor of environmental and forest sciences at the University of Washington this fall. She studies how people respond and adapt to extreme weather and environmental change, including wildfires. Part of that research was a paper written with David J.X. Gonzalez and Gabrielle Wong-Parodi based on interviews with people in Northern California who were exposed to large fires from 2018 to 2020.

While New York City was engulfed by smoke on Wednesday, I asked Santana about how people gather information about wildfires, how the torrent of digital data affects how people respond, and how masking evolved from a wildfire response to a COVID-19 response. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability.

How do people get information about wildfires and the risks to their health?

My research has mostly focused on folks in the West in California. In the early days of catastrophic wildfires, there weren’t a lot of formal sources of information. We observed that people were really relying on one another, relying on their social contacts, their friends and family to kind of process this risk and understand what to do next.

In recent years, there are now more and more resources out there: more reporting in the media and more official sources from the states and EPA. It gives people guidance on how to behave, how to protect themselves from wildfire smoke.

It’s probably a mix of both using those sources that provide an Air Quality Index, or AQI, and using those social contexts to then translate, “Okay, well, what does that really mean for my life? The AQi is over 150. I’m noticing a lot of people in my neighborhood aren't going out for runs. So maybe I won’t do that either.”

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  • Another thing I’m interested in is mask wearing behavior. How do people think about when they should wear masks and what information do they use to inform those decisions?

    There’s a pre-COVID and post-COVID story. Before COVID, wildfires and wildfire smoke were quite severe in some places in the West. We observed and talked to folks who were using masks, sometimes N95 masks, to protect their lungs from wildfire smoke.

    After the outbreak of the pandemic, some people found the transition to wearing a mask during COVID quite easy, because they had already been wearing them for wildfires. As wildfire smoke continues to be an issue, they may continue to mask. It’s sort of like getting into the habit or having the resources to wear a mask and feeling comfortable with that behavior.

    Whereas I think for other folks there is a little bit of a backlash. Wearing masks during COVID was an experience that some people were very ready to stop doing. There may be a little bit of resistance to wearing a mask for wildfire smoke.

    Another thing I found interesting about your research is that you talked about psychological coping strategies that people had when confronted by this kind of relentless wildfire smoke. I was wondering if you talk a little more about that.

    [Wildfire smoke] is very disruptive to one’s daily life and routine, especially if a person has habits related to going outside: going on walks, recreating in certain ways. And that can, over time, have a really negative toll on a person’s ability to cope with stress. It removes that regular outlet. A lot of folks have to exercise and socialize with friends and family.

    A lot of folks talked about cabin fever, being isolated and cooped up. And that for some time really did overlap and intersect with the pandemic and the inability that folks had to socialize indoors. If they were, you know, abiding by social distancing maybe they weren’t getting together with friends and family in their homes and then wildfire smoke created a situation where they were unable to do that outdoors.

    I would say it has that effect on one’s daily life and ability to cope. And I would say there’s also a component that I’ve observed with some folks who have also lived in areas where there are frequent wildfires. So if you live in a wildfire risky area and also have been exposed to smoke, smoke can trigger memories of a fire being nearby.

    The smoke can really interfere with one’s ability to cope. It really adds that extra stressor into into your day. There’s a set of concerns and worries that you have to make decisions about that are often very precise. I’ve observed a lot of people will check the air quality multiple times a day. The idea is that they’re trying to decide exactly what moments they can go outside and do the thing they’ve been waiting to do. That kind of hyper vigilance is another layer of stress.

    Yeah, I want to talk about air quality monitoring. That’s something I think a lot of people right now in California have a lot of personal experience with. Can you talk more about how the access to what seems like fine grained or frequently updated information? Are people using it to make healthier decisions? Or is it becoming itself a kind of stressor? What are the upsides and downsides to having access to this fine-grained, frequently updated information?

    The upsides are pretty major. If someone in your neighborhood has an outdoor air quality monitor, a Purple air monitor, you can have a very real time sense of exactly what the air quality is in your neighborhood. A lot of folks use that to determine what time they may walk their dogs, for example. I think that’s really good, because there can be pretty dramatic shifts throughout the day based on wind and the patterns of the smoke moving. So that’s a huge upside.

    Also people use that information to find places to go to “escape the smoke.” If you look at the whole map of California, you might see, “oh, there’s an area by the coast that is not inundated with smoke.” So that could be a good place to go for the afternoon on a Saturday. I think that really provides an outlet for folks who might be feeling very trapped by the smoke, and who also have real health concerns related to asthma and respiratory issues looking for a place to temporarily evacuate to.

    But if you’re in a place that’s inundated with smoke, and there really aren’t many changes that are substantial, it can be a really consuming and distracting to check constantly for changes in the smoke and air quality. I certainly have heard people talk about that. When the smoke becomes bad enough checking the air quality is something they’re compelled to do every five, 10, 15 minutes. It can really affect your productivity.

    I won’t speculate beyond that in terms of the psychological effects. But I think it’s akin to the other way that our phones have us hooked. I think that real-time data can give you a sense of control that isn’t really there.

    It seems like big takeaway from your research is that people seem to combine objective data and what they see around them to determine what the appropriate response is.

    I would say that that’s a finding that has repeatedly popped up across a lot of my interview-based studies. People are using a combination of information from official sources, and then also observations from their social group. And also direction from their social group. There are sometimes individuals and communities that can distribute information and they make suggestions to their friends and family and they can really encourage certain types of behavior. And I think there are other individuals who may resist that based on all sorts of things.

    As a social scientist, going forward, what are the big open questions you have or people in your field have about the kind of group and psychological responses to stuff like this? What other research needs to be done?

    How do responses change over time when people are repeatedly exposed to wildfires? Are they able to accumulate expertise and habits and resources that then make it much easier for them to protect themselves? Or is repeated exposure something that people maladapt to? They might have a response when it first happens and then perceive the threat to be less over time, because it can interfere so much with daily life. That can sometimes happen with folks. They just want to move on.

    I’m really interested also in how responses to wildfire smoke exposure might interact with some of the other things that happened during fire seasons. In places like California and the West, for example, there have been power shut offs.

    Often the communities that are most affected by those power shut-offs are communities that are simultaneously being affected by smoke, and maybe heat. How do people manage those threats when they happen all at once? If your power is off, how does that affect how you’re able to respond to smoke if you were relying on your air conditioner or air filter? What other sorts of adaptations might people choose to make when faced with those threats, and that could include moving from the area permanently.

    This is my last last question: Living on the West Coast, you’ve experienced this stuff a lot. Did your research affect your own behavioral response to wildfire smoke at all? Or make you think about how you were acting in a different way?

    I’m not not a biomedical scientist. I’m not a medical researcher. But part of being a social scientist is reading some of the latest science on the health impacts of wildfire smoke, and it’s scary. It’s potentially really dangerous. It’s dangerous for children and for folks with respiratory health issues, but it really is dangerous for everyone.

    The science is still evolving but it definitely made me think more about having air filters in my home. I have multiple air filters. It definitely made me think about ensuring that my parents and my other family members also understand the risk and have air filters in their home.

    It definitely spurred more diligence during these sorts of events and a responsibility that I feel to make sure that folks understand that the risks are real. And that if we’re going to live in a future where there will likely continue to be fires and smoke, it’s worth it, if you’re able, to invest in some of these more comprehensive strategies like having an air filter in your home. I definitely think I’m more motivated and more aware.

    Read more about the wildfire smoke engulfing the eastern United States:

    The Smoke Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better

    The East Coast’s Wildfire Smoke Is On Par With the West’s Worst Days

    How to Prepare for Wildfire Smoke, According to Doctors at Harvard

    Wildfire Smoke Is a Wheezy Throwback for New York City

    The East Coast Has Been Smokier Than the West Coast This Year

    Matthew Zeitlin profile image

    Matthew Zeitlin

    Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.


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