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Post Wildfires: the Call for Public Health Workers in California
By Staff Writer

Wildfires in California have become so familiar in the news that it’s easy for those outside of the Golden State to forget just how serious a risk wildfire is. The most devastating fire of 2018, the Northern California Camp Fire, burned more than 100,000 acres of forest, destroyed more than 13,000 residences, and killed more than 80 people while leaving thousands homeless. The cost of damages has been estimated at higher than $7 billion. All that from one wildfire – and with climate change, increasing droughts, and never-ending development in California, future wildfires are going to get worse, despite greater technology and plans for fighting them.

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Aside from immediate deaths and destruction, however, wildfires are also a serious, and long-lasting, public health threat. To help put the California wildfires in perspective, MPHOnline is looking at the public health impact of wildfires, and the growing need for California public health professionals.

What Are the Public Health Concerns Caused by Wildfires?

When a wildfire rages in California, it creates a far larger public health crisis than many people realize – one that persists long after the fire is out. Each time a fire burns out of control, California public health suffers. The negative effects of fire include damage to property and structures. However, the effects of wildfires on humans are just as terrible and damaging.

The effects of forest fires on human health include:

  • Wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath
  • Sore eyes and throats
  • An increase in asthma attacks
  • An increase in the severity of asthma attacks
  • Increased respiratory issues
  • Increased cardiovascular issues

People with preexisting respiratory or cardiovascular issues can have those issues worsen after only brief exposure to the particulate matter in wildfire smoke.

Many people end up hospitalized after breathing in wildfire smoke. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to the effects of forest fires on human health. Outside all other health concerns, the effects of wildfires on humans can often lead to premature death.

Other Public Health Concerns Caused by Wildfires

Wildfires also affect overall California environmental health, and the smoke from wildfires pass the negative effects of fire onto adjacent states. Wildfire smoke health effects don’t end when the fire goes out. The effects of wildfires on humans linger for a long time afterward.

Altogether, the strain these fires put on public health in California is incredible. California public health systems and professionals are stretched thin and stressed.

These systems and people have to deal with an unimaginable number of issues caused by frequent wildfires, and the wildfire smoke health effects that come with them. Those effects don’t just go away. Sometimes, people sick from wildfire smoke can develop lifelong health issues that require ongoing care.

California public health concerns also include the long-term effects of wildfires. These fires severely pollute the air and create environmental health concerns that can stick around affect people for years to come.

How Does the Public Health System and Professionals Deal With Wildfires?

California public health systems have a long history of preparing people and authorities for dealing with wildfires. Still, dealing with these fires creates an uphill battle, especially when they come during particularly dry times and in greater ferocity than normal. In addition, wildfires create unique public health problems that require unique solutions.

For example, public health professionals must help plan different types of emergency evacuations with regional planning and coordination specialists. No two towns have the same infrastructure, so individual plans and considerations for wildfire preparedness have to occur on a place-by-place basis.

Beyond planning, public health professionals must deal with the immediate influx of people injured or sick from wildfire smoke. That necessitates more than just hospital and emergency staff.

Affected people often need specialists and others who know how to deal with a populace affected by wildfire. In that aftermath, these professionals and public health systems must help the people who need ongoing care, and that includes their mental health and wellbeing as well.

The California public health system does all this and more, but it needs more public health professionals and people who can help handle an ever-increasing load. The state also needs those who can help develop its public health offerings and emergency services going into the future.

Other Responses to Public Health Issues Caused by Wildfires

The state continues to employ new technology and innovative ways of dealing with these large-scale natural disasters. These changes often require more people who understand how these things apply to public health. Having a new way of dealing with certain public health issues only works if everyone involved understands public health and the ramifications of using new techniques or tools.

California isn’t a stranger to wildfires, so there’s a lot of emergency plans in place already. Unfortunately, the most recent wildfire season in the state proved they need to do even more when it comes to public health before, during, and after a wildfire. Much of this leads directly into why there’s a need for more public health professionals in California.

Why Is There a Need for More Public Health Professionals in California?

California public health and California environmental health requires people at every level of the public health spectrum. The state needs community health workers, population health managers and leaders, and innovators in public health to help it deal with the overabundance of issues caused by smoke from wildfires. That need also extends to businesses and entrepreneurs who can establish services that aid and benefit California public health services.

Types of Public Health Jobs Needed to Aid Wildfire-Prone Areas

As public health is a wide field in general, there are numerous job opportunities and career paths open in places that see many wildfires. Some of those jobs include:

When a wildfire occurs, it’s an all hands on deck situation. Every type of public health professional can find a place in areas prone to wildfires.

Public health in California is spearheaded by several public health agencies. These agencies need people. The public sector in California needs more people as do the private sector and nonprofits. For people seeking public health careers, these areas offer a lot, and are actively seeking people to help.

Local health departments in all towns and counties, especially those hit hard by the most recent wildfires, need fresh people. California needs public health nurses, public health directors, public health assistants, and others.

People with specialties will find the state hungry for that expertise. This is especially true for those with mental and social health services concentration. The mental and emotional toll wildfires take on people leads to a great need for public health professionals who can help navigate those psychological injuries.

The men and women who are on the frontline dealing with the wildfires also need particular care. Emergency services, fire departments, hospitals, and paramedics all deal with smoke from wildfires close up and must contend with wildfire smoke health effects. They too need a public health infrastructure around them. These people can also come from a public health background, which means they also represent viable public health career paths.

The wildfire situation in California and adjacent places created an official public health emergency as declared by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The negative effects of fire create an entire ecosystem of need that public health professionals can and should fill. Public health in California represents an opportunity for people who want to fulfill career goals while helping to make a real difference.

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