New research on wildfires in California

Wildfire burning through forest.

Researchers from the Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC) are working with Northern California communities to study the impact smoke and burned debris have had on survivors of the 2017 North Bay and 2018 Camp fires.

These wildfires were unique because they burned thousands of manmade structures, which scientists believe could have an impact on the health of people differently than “natural” wildfires that burn trees, grass and other plants.

“We know what natural wildfire smoke is composed of, but we have no idea what will be in this. We expect it to be very different,” says Keith Bein, a researcher at the UC Davis Air Quality Research Center.

WHAT NOW California: A study in urban wildfires

EHSC’s study is called “Wildfires and Health: Assessing the Toll in NOrthWest California” (WHAT NOW California). Leading the research team is Irva Hertz-Picciotto, director of EHSC and a professor of public health sciences at UC Davis. About a dozen other scientists are involved in the study with Hertz-Picciotto.

​EHSC scientists are collecting samples of air and ash from affected areas in Northern California, and also gathering information about residents’ experiences during and in the immediate aftermath of the fires through online and door-to-door surveys.

Scientists are also enrolling moms-to-be in the Bio-Specimen and Fire Affects Study (B-SAFE) to better understand the health impacts on pregnant women and children. Women from Butte to Bay Area counties are being recruited for this study, which is one of several that fall under the umbrella of WHAT-NOW.

In collecting this data, EHSC and its scientists hope to accomplish several things:

  • Understand how people are affected by exposure to smoke and combustion of chemicals in urban wildfires
  • Protect the public’s health during the recovery in Northern California
  • Prevent health problems related to wildfires 

WHAT NOW California receives funding from the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center, which is sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.