New research on wildfires in California

Wildfire burning through forest.

“We know what natural wildfire smoke is composed of, but we have no idea what will be in urban wildfire smoke. We expect it to be very different.”

Keith Bein, UC Davis Air Quality Research Center


2018 Camp Fire
The 2018 Camp Fire blanketed Northern California with smoke, burning 19,000 structures and affecting millions of people hundreds of miles away.

Researchers from the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC) are working with communities across California to study the impact smoke and burned debris have had on survivors of wildfires over the past two years.

Wildfires in California in 2017 and 2018 were unique because they burned thousands of structures, which scientists believe could have an impact on the health of people differently than “natural” wildfires that burn trees, grass and other plants.

WHAT NOW California: A study in urban wildfires

Kat Navarro
Researcher and wildland firefighter Kat Navarro battling a blaze.

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 statewide 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 as people recover from wildfires
  • 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.